Monday, December 16, 2019

Sci-fi DVD Binges

I used to have a commitment on this blog to review starship-based TV series on an episode-by-episode basis. Please forgive me, but I just don't have the time for that any more. In fact, the amount of time I spend looking at a computer screen at work, and the fact that I haven't budgeted for an internet connection at home for the past several years, has somewhat deterred me from reviewing everything I watch on DVD like I used to and has led to long delays between when I watched something and when I wrote about it.

Nevertheless, I don't want to let some fine pieces of starship-based entertainment go by unremarked on. So, with only a few brushstrokes, here are my reviews of a few of my TV on DVD binges during the past year.

Andromeda (Seasons 1-5) – I got hold of a boxed set of this complete series for a reasonable price, and watched it straight through in one of those "every waking hour except when you're at work" video binges that, when measured by the care one takes of oneself and one's living environment, are effectively indistinguishable from an episode of bipolar depression. I was mostly rewarded by good entertainment.

Developed by sometime Star Trek writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe from unproduced notes left behind by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Andromeda aired for five seasons (2000-05) and 110 episodes, mainly in first-run syndication but also (at least in part) on Canada's Global Television Network and cable's Sci-Fi Channel. It was produced by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the Great Bird's widow and the actress who played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi.

Set thousands of years in the future, the storyline begins about 300 years after the fall of the Systems Commonwealth, a diverse planetary alliance that spans three galaxies and includes many species. Structured as a sort of constitutional monarchy, its royalty (if you will) are an advanced race called the Vedrans.

Kevin Sorbo plays Dylan Hunt, the captain of a self-aware starship called the Andromeda Ascendant, which gets stuck on the event horizon of a black hole with only him on board right at the moment when the Nietzscheans – a coalition of clans devoted to eugenics, racial purity and the practice of existentialist ideology – betray the Commonwealth, fracture civilization and usher in an era known as the Long Night.

Now Hunt and Andromeda are back, thanks to a crew of scavengers who tractor-beam them off the event horizon. For him, only moments have passed. But he finds the universe totally changed. The Commonwealth fleet has been destroyed. Earth has been devastated, first by a Nietzschean occupation, then by an invasion of the voracious Magog. Former Commonwealth worlds have not done so well on their own. And the Vedrans have totally disappeared.

With Andromeda's artificial intelligence still loyal to him, Hunt recruits (most) of the scavengers to help him rebuild the Commonwealth – an at first seemingly quixotic quest that they actually achieve, little by little, during the first three years of the series, in spite of constant push-back by the Nietzscheans and others.

In Season 4 or so, all their gains are clawed back, and another wave of Magog seems to be on a collision course with all other life in the known universe. Then there's Season 5, in which the climax is seemingly suspended and the main characters find themselves stranded in limbo, or rather a pocket universe, looking for a way out of a planetary system that was apparently designed as a colossal machine.

Co-starring with Sorbo are Lisa Ryder as Beka Valentine, the captain of a freighter/smuggling ship called the Eureka Maru, which for all its significant size fits comfortably inside the Andromeda Ascendant's shuttle bay; Gordon Michael Woolvett as Seamus Harper, a nerdy engineer; Laura Bertram as Trance Gemini, a mysterious alien who changes color partway through the series and turns out to be the avatar of a star; Lexa Doig as the ship's AI and its android avatar; Keith Hamilton Cobb as a Nietzschean named Tyr who grudgingly joins the crew for a few seasons before finally becoming their foe; Brent Stait as a reformed Magog named Rev Bem, who also flakes off after a couple of seasons; Steve Bacic as two different Nietzscheans named Rhade, one of whom takes over Tyr's position in the group in later seasons; and Brandy Ledford as another android named Doyle, who joins the group for Season 5.

Sorbo is at the height of his manly charisma in this role, and he does a lot with his catch-line, "It's never easy." Ryder and Woolvett get a lot of opportunities to show their characters wrestling between noble ideals and mercenary impulses; they also both excel at sarcasm and have bad luck in their love lives, though the scales tip toward Beka where sex appeal is concerned; Seamus is more of a comedic sad sack in that respect.

Cobb and Bacic's characters were seemingly designed to look sexy in revealing costumes or a lack thereof, thereby gratifying the male-attracted segment of the audience. However, it's impossible to like Tyr very much, since (unlike Telemachus Rhade) he never exhibits the faintest tint of loyalty and, except for sexual tension with Beka, has no chemistry with any of the other main characters. Tyr also has no apparent sense of humor; even when he laughs, there's no joy in it.

For the other characters, you have two sexy female androids who are, after all, androids with the mind of a warship; a cute girl who comes across like everybody's kid sister and whose character, toward the end of the series, develops in an incomprehensible direction; and that Magog guy, whose makeup must have been stifling and isn't very pleasant to look at, but who (up to a point) gave the crew a spiritual dimension.

Overall, I thought it was a terrific adventure for about three years, with ups and downs along the way. It seemed to be building toward a big climax throughout Season 4, but whatever big payoff one might expect going into Season 5 was dissipated by a whole season stuck on and around one planet (or a few variations on it), and that took back all of the main characters' positive development up to that time. I felt let down by the series finale, and I collected a sense that a change in personnel behind the scenes (like, RHW losing control of the show) might have contributed to the show's decline.

Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) Season One episode "The Banks of the Lethe," in which Dylan is offered an opportunity to reunite with his lost love and perhaps change history on the eve of the Nietzschean attack. (2) Season Three episode "Cui Bono," in which John de Lancie ("Q" on Star Trek) plays Beka's no-good Uncle Sid and his evil corporation takes out a hit on everybody who might be responsible for putting him in a coma.

(3) The two-part episode "Dissonant Interval" at the end of Season 4, after which the series is more or less one long anticlimax. In this episode, the Andromedas encounter a space habitat whose peaceful inhabitants believe (alas, wrongly) that they can make peace with the impending horde of Magog. Dylan learns that he's a Paradine (for more info, watch the show), T. Rhade falls in love, and everything comes to the ultimate cliffhanger – certain doom for all! – except for a cryptic ending in which it seems Dylan has somehow escaped the carnage. The only thing that could have made it better is a halfway decent Season 5. But in a TV series where the writing staff turned over almost completely from one season to the next, that's not something you should bet on.

Doctor Who (9th & 10th Doctors) – Only recently have I taken steps to correct a huge oversight in my sci-fi TV fandom: I had never watched an entire episode of Doctor Who. I was aware, from TV specials about it, fragments of episodes stumbled on now and then, and recreational reading on and off the Internet, that Doctor Who was a show going back to the 1960s and featuring a funny little man with no name traveling through time and space in a blue police box called TARDIS, or maybe Tardis, with a crew of tag-alongs that turned over frequently and was mostly there to say, "What's that, Doctor?" I was also aware that some of his enemies include these giant gliding pepper-pots called Daleks that like to scream "Exterminate!" in a hysterical manner, campy robot-like creatures called Cybermen, and more recently (thanks to their frequent appearance in Facebook memes) weeping angels that freeze into statues when you look at them, but close in quickly when your back is turned or your eyes blink.

I've read a lot of about Doctor Who, actually. I remember a story, a few years ago, about how it's reinvented itself as a different type of show every few years. Self-reinvention seems to be the secret to the show's longevity – weathering all those years between 1963 and 1989, coming back for a one-off TV movie in 1996, starting up again in 2005 and still going today. For the Doctor's sidekicks (I mean, companions) aren't the only things that turn over on a regular basis. The Doctor himself keeps changing, or rather, regenerating into a different guy – still the same Doctor, but (thanks to his alien biology) able to start over in a new body every now and then, if he gets hurt badly enough. You know, the sort of situation where a character would say, "It's still me, I'm just being played by a different actor now."

We're now, I think, on the 13th Doctor in first-run, canonical broadcast. Let me make short work of them before I go on to talk about Doctors IX and X. Though, to be sure, my ignorance will show itself.

Doctor I (1963-66) was played by a guy named William Hartnell as sort of a crusty old professor type. I think I've heard he was starting to lose his ability to memorize his lines by the end of his turn in the role, with some whimsically improvised results. Then there was Patrick Troughton as Doctor II (1966-69), a recorder-playing, Charlie-Chaplinesque hobo type of Doctor, who mindfully set a precedent for only hanging onto the part for three or four years in order not to get into a rut. Doctor III (1970-74) was a certain Jon Pertwee, who had silver hair and made up the technobabble catchphrase "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow." Doctor IV (1974-81) was Tom Baker, the curly dark-haired guy with the incredible scarf who was in the role when U.S. viewers started taking notice of him. Doctor V (1982-84) was Peter Davison, a young blond dude who affected a Panama hat and a cricketer's getup with a celery stalk stuck to his lapel. Doctor VI (1984-86) was Colin Baker, a flamboyant type with blond curls and a multi-colored costume. Doctor VII (1987-89) was Sylvester McCoy, an umbrella-carrying little guy who saw the series canceled from under him. Doctor VIII, for just one TV movie in 1996, was Paul McGann.

And now, for one year only (2005), Doctor IX is Christopher Eccleston, a leather-jacket-wearing adventurer with big ears, a goofy grin and a disarming habit of saying "Fantastic!" like he really means it whenever a weird and dangerous situation arises. His companion, overlapping into Doctor X's era, is Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper), an (at first) 19-year-old shop girl raised by a single mum in a somewhat low-rent part of London. She develops romantic feelings for Doctor X (2005-10), played by David Tennant, a.k.a. Barty Crouch Jr. from the Harry Potter films. I might as well mention that as far as my dad is concerned, he's the best Doctor of them all. I think he's pretty good, too. After these guys there's Doctor XI (2010-13) played by a younger, frequently fez-wearing Matt Smith, Doctor XII (2014-17) played by an older guy named Peter Capaldi (who actually appears in a guest role during Tennant's tenure) and most recently, the first-ever female Doctor (XIII) played by Jodie Whittaker. So, that's that.

Tennant's Doctor goes through a few companions. After a spell with Rose Tyler, he leaves her in an alternate dimension and moves on to a pretty young medical student named Martha Jones (played by Freema Agyeman, who had also guest-starred as somebody else a few episodes earlier). Then, for a while, it's the bossy, brassy Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate), who actually accompanied the Doctor on one of his Christmas Specials before he met Martha, and was eventually fated to forget all about him, for her own safety. All three of these companions brought family complications into the TARDIS, which meant additional, recurring cast members such as Rose's mum Jackie and boyfriend Mickey, Martha's parents and siblings and Donna's mum and granddad.

Then there's Capt. Jack Harkness, the flamboyantly omnisexual, time-traveling ne'er-do-well played by John Barrowman, lately of "Arrow," as a recurring character throughout the Eccleston/Tennant years and also, I gather, as a leading role in the spinoff series "Torchwood," which I have yet to see. Also, Elisabeth Sladen reprises her role as the Third & Fourth Doctors' companion Sarah Jane Smith, in appearances that overlap with her own spinoff series ("The Sarah Jane Adventures") which ended in 2011 with the actress' death. Some other Time Lords put in their appearances, including the villainous Master, played by Derek Jacobi and later John Simm, as well as the Lord High President of Gallifrey (the Time Lords' planet), played by Timothy Dalton of 007 fame.

But anyway, I'm ready to commit to my Three Episodes That Made It For Me. I'll give you one for each doctor, though there are only 13 episodes to choose from for Doc 9. Here they are, though: (1) "Boom Town," where a devious creature from the planet Rexicoricofallapatorius (I love saying that) – her full name, Blon Fel Foch Passemer-Day Slitheen (which I also love saying) – dons a human woman's skin and tries to blow up Cardiff. The specific scene that makes it for me is when Blon, while dining out with the Doctor on the pretext of having her last meal before being turned over to her homeworld for capital punishment, begs for her life. As part of her argument, she makes three unsuccessful attempts to poison the Doctor in quick succession, one of the most perfect comic scenes in the series so far as I have seen it.

(2) "The End of the World," in which the Doctor and Rose encounter the last "pure" human being, voiced by Madam Hooch from Harry Potter. Obsessed with being as thin and white as possible, Lady Cassandra has been surgically reduced to a rectangle of skin stretched across a metal-tube frame with two eyes and a mouth, constantly needing to be spritzed with moisturizer by her attendants. Her character, hateful as she is, is an absolute gas.

(3) "Bad Wolf," in which the Doctor, Captain Jack and Rose find themselves in a nightmarish, mechanized version of Reality TV, about which I'll say no more for now. An honorable mention has to go to "Dalek," in which the apparent last Dalek in existence taunts the Doctor with the awful assessment, "You would make an excellent Dalek."

As for Doc 10, my Three Episodes should be so much harder to choose, because there are ever so many more of them and quite a few of them are of the highest quality. However, it really isn't that hard, because three just stand up head and shoulders above all: (1) "Blink," featuring those terrifying Weeping Angels and the Doc's famous speech about "wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff." Surprisingly, it's one of those stories told from the perspective of a non-recurring character who just brushes up against the Doctor in a weird but wonderful way.

(2) "Midnight," an episode in which the Doctor and a group of strangers become trapped together when their ground transport breaks down in the middle of a trip across a planetscape completely hostile to life. An impossible life-form infiltrates the cabin and takes over one of the passengers, setting everyone against each other and especially against the Doctor. It's an hour or so of the most exquisite terrors – paranoia, claustrophobia and xenophobia to start with, topped off by the fear of fear itself.

(3) The two-part episode "Silence in the Library" / "Forest of the Dead," introducing a time-traveling character named River Song (played by Alex Kingston) who seems to know the Doctor intimately from their shared future, but whom he has never met before. It's their last meeting for her and their first for him, apparently. The mystery, strangeness and emotional power of this two-parter makes it a standout all around.

Space does not permit me to list all of the honorable mentions that I would like – for just a couple of examples, there's the 2007 Christmas Special "Voyage of the Damned," in which Kylie Minogue plays a one-off companion who joins the doctor on an adventure on the the Starliner Titanic and comes to an end brimming with pathos; "Gridlock," featuring a worldwide traffic jam set to go on forever; "Smith and Jones," in which Doc 10 and Martha Jones are transported along with an entire hospital to the moon; "The Girl in the Fireplace" (oh, my goodness! That should have been one of my top 3!) featuring Madame Pompadour (played by the beautiful Sophia Myles) in a most unusual and emotionally devastating twist on the "Doctor Does History" type of episode.

The Orville, Season 2 – I already introduced the premise of this show in my review of Season 1 (in the same post as my review of Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery). So what else is there to say except that it continues to be the closest thing to Star Trek that isn't Star Trek, with a comedic twist based largely on the idea of how lame the 25th Century would be if it was full of 21st Century us.

I'll get right on to Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) "The Happy Refrain," in which Dr. Claire Finn and super-intelligent android Isaac explore the possibility of a romantic relationship – a concept that miraculously stays just this side of ridiculous and is actually kind of touching at times. My favorite moment is when Isaac decides he wants to break it off without hurting Claire's feelings, so (on the advice of the ship's designated ladies' man) he tries to provoke her into dumping him. Robot in tighty-whities, nursing a bottle of beer? Hysterical! (2) "Identity," the two-parter in which Isaac's people lure the Orville into becoming part of their bid to conquer all organic life in the universe. This episode has lots going for it, including (at last) some common ground between the Union and their whilom worst enemy, the Krill. But the icing on the cake is the way Dr. Finn's adorable younger son saves the day, simply by making Isaac choose to love him. (3) "All the World Is Birthday Cake," in which Kelly and Bortus are chucked into a concentration camp on a first-contact planet simply because their birth month puts them under an unfavorable horoscope. Again, it's a belly-laugh funny, preposterous concept that somehow comes across as deadly serious, could-have-been-an-episode-of-classic-Trek stuff, without losing touch with the humorous side. Guest cast members include John Rubinstein and Ted Danson.

Honorable Mention could go to practically all of the season's other episodes – which isn't hard, considering that the show is excellently put together and had, after all, only 14 hours of material last year. Among the issues it explored were more reasons Bortus' Moclan race is a strange bedfellow with the Union (there are multiple episodes in which their alliance is tested by an explosive issue, mostly revolving around gender politics), the devastating butterfly-effect results of tampering with the timeline, the captain's loneliness and trouble moving on after his failed marriage with Kelly, porn addiction, cyberstalking, making peace with the enemy, the fine line sometimes between asylum seekers and terrorists, and (for my top Honorable Mention) "Home," the last episode for original security chief Alara, which features the actors who played the ship's doctor on two different Star Trek series (Robert Picardo of "Voyager" as Alara's father and John Billingsley of "Enterprise" as a guy who terrorizes their family). Other Trek alumni turn up this season, too, with former cast members Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris) both directing episodes, episodes written by former Trek writers Andre Bormanis, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, and a couple appearances by Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) as the ship's schoolteacher.

Star Trek: Discovery, Season 2 – Again, I'm going to save myself the trouble of re-introducing this entire series by referring you back to the above-linked post in which I reviewed Season 1. Additions to the regular cast this season include comedian Tig Notaro as Jet Reno, an engineer rescued early in the season from a wrecked medical ship, whose dry, sarcastic wit makes her a welcome addition to the cast; Alan van Sprang as Leland, an intelligence operative with Starfleet's Section 31, who develops into the season's main heavy; Anson Mount as original-pilot Capt. Christopher Pike (played in previous appearances by Jeffrey Hunter and Bruce Greenwood); Rebecca Romijn as Pike's "Number One"; Rachael Ancheril as security officer Nhan, an alien of the "needs an implant to puff air from her planet into her nostrils to survive in our atmosphere" persuasion; and Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck, as a pre-Kirk era version of Spock, who (you may remember) is main character Michael Burnham's foster brother.

Long story short, this season's serialized format sends Pike, Spock and the Discoveries in search of the source of a series of mysterious signals that, they gradually learn, has something to do with a time traveler from the distant future (often described as a "Red Angel"), something to do with a threat to all sentient life in the universe, and something to do with an artificial intelligence that is close to reaching the tipping point to achieve full sentience. Meantime, Michael and Spock have some serious sibling issues to work out; the ship's astromycologist (!) Paul Stamets gets his boyfriend, Dr. Hugh Culber, back from the dead; Michael rekindles her romantic flame with ex-Klingon sleeper agent Ash Tyler, now an agent for Section 31; and everything ties up nicely so that, from Season 3 onward, diehard Trekkers need not worry about this series effing up Original Series continuity. (That hint is big enough to almost be a spoiler. Sorry.)

I liked a lot about this season, which I felt was a distinct improvement on Season 1. It started to feel more like classic Trek. The look of it was increasingly there, too – including a beautiful redesign of the original Enterprise bridge. There was a more episodic feel to it, which I thought was also a plus, given the way Season 1 was so heavily serialized that, with only a couple of exceptions, it became hard to distinguish one episode from another. And so I found it easier to choose the Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) "The Sound of Thunder," in which Saru undergoes the Kelpien death process, only to discover that it isn't what his planet's dominant race, the Ba'ul, have sold it as to his subservient people. We get to see his planet; we meet the super-creepy Ba'ul for just a moment; and we see this important character undergo a huge change that will have far-reaching consequences. Already a cool and original guy, Saru becomes even more so in the episodes following this one. Also, might I mention, he has the coolest on-board quarters I've ever seen in a starship-based TV series. (2) "Through the Valley of Shadows," in which Pike visits a Klingon shrine, meets Ash Tyler's love-child by the female Klingon chancellor (a victim of an extreme case of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome), and confronts his own disturbing future before making a movingly courageous choice. (3) "Project Deadalus," in which a recurring bridge officer named Airiam meets her demise. It's a terrific installment loaded with suspense, pathos, chills and action.

In this instance, I'd also like to mention Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) A fight between Ash Tyler (who is still working out what species he is) and Hugh Culber (who hasn't quite come to terms with his death and resurrection), which ends with an arm-lock. Culber: "I don't know who I am anymore!" Tyler: "Who do you think you're talking to?" (2) The 3D chess game between Michael and Spock, which ends with him upending the board and declaring that he enjoys feeling anger. Peck does a great job depicting Spock in the throes of crisis between emotion and logic, lashing out at his foster-sister with breathtaking hurtfulness. It's delicious. (3) Ensign Tilly's hallucination of a girl she knew in junior high school comes to a head when she's sitting in the captain's chair on the bridge as part of a command-training exercise. Unable to cope any longer with what she thinks is evidence that she's losing her mind, Tilly explodes at the captain, says "I quit" and storms off the bridge in front of all her shocked crewmates. It's a tipping point for a really offbeat, mysterious storyline.

Again, Honorable Mentions are due – including a segment in which the ship's universal translators go on the fritz, Michael's discovery of who's wearing the Red Angel timesuit (after she was set up to believe it was her future self), and practically any scene featuring the Machiavellian character of Bizarro Capt. Philippa Georgiou (actually the deposed emperor of the Terran universe), played with fiendish zest by Michelle Yeoh. I particularly enjoyed her attempt to pick up Stamets and Culber (with whose mirror-universe doppelgangers she had shared some unlawful carnal knowledge). Visiting Talos IV again was also quite the trip.

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