Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who's That Witch?

I haven't been back to see Harry Potter 7 again. Don't worry, I'm not that obsessed. But I've been thinking about the time I went to see one of the HP films, I think it was #5, with a friend who had no idea what it was all about. He hadn't read the books. He hadn't seen any of the previous movies in the series. So he was completely at sea, and I spent most of the movie hissing answers to his whispered questions because, as a fan of the series may be surprised to learn, the movies aren't very self-explanatory. If you don't already know who's who and what's going on, you're not going to find out by watching the movies. They leave too much out, much of which only a true fan is going to figure out.

So, here is a quick blow-by-blow of Harry Potter 7.1 was I remember it, explaining the questions a Harry Potter "virgin" might be afraid to ask in a theater full of fiercely focused fans.

The first person you see, in an extreme close-up, is a politician making a speech to the press in the atrium of a really bizarre public building. This building is Britain's Ministry of Magic, containing the government offices for all things-magically related, because in Harry Potter's world witches and wizards are a significant (though secret) part of the population. The guy having his picture taken while he assures everyone that their "ministry is strong" is Rufus Scrimgeour, the present Minister for Magic, who ought to have been in the 6th movie but wasn't, so this is everyone's first look at him. Unfortunately, you won't know who he is unless you piece together references other characters make to him later in the film, by which time you have no idea who they're talking about, so aren't you glad I told you?

In the next scene, we see Harry Potter watching a fat man, a skinny woman, and their burly son loading up their possessions and getting ready to leave. These folks are the Dursleys: Harry's mean Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Cousin Dudley, who are fanatical Muggles (i.e., they refuse to believe in magic, even though Harry has lived with them since his parents died when he was one year old). They've never been anything but a pain to Harry, but they're all the family he's ever known, and their house his only home, so we see him taking bittersweet leave of it... including the cupboard under the stairs, which served as his bedroom until he turned 11 and started going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.

Intercut with this scene is the sad bit where a girl--Harry's brainy school friend Hermione Granger--shoots her Muggle parents with an "obliviate" charm. This erases all their memories of her, which is hard on Hermioone because she likes her parents. Even though they are dentists. She never discusses this with Harry, but perhaps you'll think of it later when the third member of the "trio," Hermione's boyfriend Ron Weasley, gives her the choice, "Are you coming with me or staying with him?" You'll know what she has already sacrificed for Harry, and thus what a bastard Ron is for giving her such a choice.

Then there's a scene with a bunch of bad people seated around a very long table in a secluded manor house. The house belongs to the Malfoy family, an "old blood" magical family, which in the world of witches and wizards counts as old money (which, as it happens, they have too). The really freaked-out looking dude with the long white hair is Lucius Malfoy, the head of this family of aristocratic creeps. His wife Narcissa is the haughty brunette with the white skunk-stripe through her hair. The slim, handsome, white-blond youth seated beside him (also scared witless) is his only son Draco, who has been antagonizing Harry since the day they both started at Hogwarts. Remember this later when Draco's bat-guano-crazy Aunt Bellatrix (you'll know who I mean) forces him to look at Harry Potter and tell her if it's Harry Potter. Try to figure out the message Draco's eyes send to Harry while he stalls for time.

Also at the table are a guy with a flat nose with snake-like slits for nostrils. He is Voldemort, the evilest wizard that ever lived--so evil that he's not really human any more. As the movie goes on you're going to hear a lot of talk about horcruxes, which Harry is trying to find and destroy. These horcruxes are pieces of Voldemort's soul, which the Dark Lord sliced off by murdering someone and then embedded in a physical object, such as the locket that so much of this film has to do with. As long as that object survives, Voldemort cannot be wholly killed. So, to end Voldemort's reign of terror, Harry has to find all the horcruxes and destroy them. The trouble is, three have been accounted for so far (the locket in this movie, a ring and a book in the previous films), but there are at least three more that Harry hasn't even found yet by the end of this film.

Voldemort's pet snake is Nagini. You first see Nagini curled up next to a long-haired wizard whose politician instincts make Voldemort laugh. This guy, who has never been seen before in this series, is Pius Thicknesse. He becomes the Minister for Magic after Voldemort's "Death Eater" followers sack the Ministry and kill Scrimgeour. Obviously, Thicknesse is a puppet of Voldemort.

The other main character in this "Death Eater cabinet meeting" is Severus Snape, the one who arrives late with news about Harry Potter. Snape has been Harry's least favorite teacher since he started at Hogwarts, teaching first Potions and then Defense Against the Dark Arts. Until lately, Snape was supposed to be a double-agent, pretending to work for Voldemort but actually spying for the good guys. That isn't so clear any more, now that Snape killed the greatest wizard ever, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, in book/movie #6. Dumbledore's the dude you see falling in slow motion near the beginning of this movie, in a flashback to his final moments.

The people who show up at Harry's house to move him to the Burrow are members of the Order of the Phoenix, an anti-Death Eater thing started by Dumbledore. Harry is safe in the Dursley's home until he turns 17, the age of majority for wizards, but as his birthday approaches they need to find another alternative. The Burrow is the upcountry, salt-of-the-earth home of the Weasleys, an all-wizarding family who include Harry's best friend Ron and his main squeeze, Ron's kid sister Ginny. In this scene you are introduced to an awful lot of characters in very little time, and it doesn't help that half of them end up looking identical to Harry, thanks to a little magic called Polyjuice Potion, requiring a few hairs out of Harry's scalp to have its full effect.

The guy with the crazy eye and the flask of potion is, natch, Mad-Eye Moody, one of a succession of Defense Against the Dark Arts Professors Emeritii who form a part of this film's enormous cast. Mad-Eye has made a career out of fighting dark wizards, so he's a bit paranoid. Take a good look when he flies by on his semi-recumbent broomstick; it's the last time you're ever going to see him. Later on, you'll hear that Mad-Eye has been killed.

Also participating in the Seven Harrys ruse are two men with horrible scars on their faces. The elder of the two is Remus Lupin, another ex-DADA professor who happens to be a werewolf. The news that his wife Tonks almost gets out, before Moody interrupts her, is that they are going to have a baby. Lupin got his facial scratches from a hippogriff, which is a long story. The younger disfigured face belongs to Bill Weasley, Ron's oldest brother, who (like Scrimgeour) should have been introduced in a previous film but hasn't appeared until now. His fiancee, Fleur Delacour, competed against Harry in a sort of magical Olympiad in book/film #4, and it's their wedding that we see later. And though this movie doesn't reveal it, theirs also is the seaside cottage where Harry & his friends end up at the end of this "Part 1."

The tall, snappily dressed, jocular twins are two more of Ron's brothers, Fred and George by name. Believe it or not, there are still two more Weasley boys who don't appear in this film, Charlie and Percy. This makes Ron the youngest of six boys, a fact that may help you understand the accusation, made later in the film, that Ron's mother liked him least because she had always wanted a girl. The twins, who are only a couple years older than Ron, are so close that they complete each other's sentences, and they are rich because they own a joke shop together.

We haven't met Mundungus Fletcher before. If he seems a little seedy to you, that's because he is. "Dung," as his associates call him, is a habitual thief who, we later learn, has burgled the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, which happens to the the house Harry inherited from his late godfather Sirius Black. More on that later.

Then there's Hagrid, that giant guy with the bushy beard and the flying motorbike. He was the one who placed Harry on the Dursley's doorstop all those years ago, and who later came back to tell Harry that he was a wizard and to give him his invitation to attend Hogwarts. Hagrid isn't a typical wizard. He is half-giant (on his mother's side) and for a long time he was forbidden to do magic as discipline for a crime he didn't commit. He works at Hogwarts as gamekeeper, groundskeeper, and sometime professor of Care of Magical Creatures, but he mostly serves the series as comic relief. Line: "Er, I don' want ter be rude, but... who the bloody hell are you?" (Hagrid to Umbridge, Book #5).

The big, deep-voiced wizard-of-color is Kingsley Shacklebolt, an "auror" (i.e., dark-wizard catcher like Moody) who moonlights as a member of the Order. His usual assignment (to protect the Prime Minister from magical attack) is a sign of how badly things have deteriorated in the magical world; the conflict affects more than wizards and witches. Later, when a ball of light materializes in the middle of a wedding reception, you'll hear Kingsley's voice speaking out of it.

Also involved in the operation is Arthur Weasley, the middle-aged wizard who fathered Bill, Charlie, Percy, Fred, George, Ron, and Ginny. You'll probably get this when he and Fred rush to George's side after he gets his ear blown off.

Most of the Harry impersonators and their escorts depart for the Burrow on brooms, standard flying equipment for witches and wizards. Harry, of course, joins Hagrid on his rocket-powered, gravity-defying motorcycle. The winged horsey things that you'll see at the rear of the starting line are thestrals, creatures that even wizarding folk can't see unless they have witnessed death. The fact that nobody even discusses these amazing creatures is perhaps a sign that things have gotten to a really bad point in the world of wizardry.

The owl who bites it is Hedwig, who has been Harry's familiar since he was 11 years old. In Harry's world, familiars don't serve much of a purpose magically. They're pretty much just pets with fringe benefits, such as delivering mail and (in this case) taking a killing curse intended for Harry.

That thing that happens between Harry's and Voldemort's wands isn't supposed to happen. When it happened before, in books/movies #4-6, it was supposedly because their wands were impregnated with tailfeathers from the same phoenix, making them twin wands that could not properly fight against each other. As you may gather from subsequent scenes, Voldemort is both furious and mystified to find that, even using Lucius Malfoy's wand with its dragon-heartstring core, the jets of light out of both wands connected & canceled out the curse V. was trying to throw at H.P. This is why, later, through visions in which Harry shares Voldemort's consciousness, we see Voldemort interrogating a terrified wand-maker named Gregorovitch (whom he kills) and his predecessor as Dark Lord, Grindelwald (whom, surprisingly, he leaves alive). He is looking for a wand that cannot be defeated in combat--one of the Deathly Hallows, that we learn about as the movie goes on.

Harry is going to have some trouble, later, deciding whether he should keep looking for horcruxes or whether he had better complete his own collection of Deathly Hallows, relics of death that will make one "the master of death." Meanwhile, he has to fight against the idea of other people risking their lives for him because he is the "chosen one" who, according to a prophecy revealed earlier in the series, can only be killed by Voldemort, and is the only person who can kill Voldemort... and one of them must die.

The chubby lady who runs out of the Burrow and hugs Harry, after he and Hagrid land, is Molly Weasley, Arthur's wife and sevenfold baby-mommy. She's also the closest thing to a mother Harry has ever known, which is good because she's going to end up being his mother-in-law. That's not a spoiler, is it? I mean, after the "zip me up" scene you kind of have to see that coming!

At the wedding we meet several people who are introduced to us (such as the disturbingly honest Luna Lovegood and her conspiracy-theorist father Xenophilius, who live just over the hill from the Weasleys) and a few who aren't. The portly man Harry sits down to talk with is Elphias Doge, the author of a tribute to the late Dumbledore that Harry says he found moving; if you've watched closely, you may know this already from a scene where Harry is reading a wizarding newspaper called The Daily Prophet. The batty old lady who butts into their conversation is Ron's Great-Aunt Muriel, which you won't know unless you've read the book.

Auntie Muriel teasingly mentions an historian named Bathilda Bagshot, whose name Harry ought to recognize because she authored all the textbooks for his History of Magic classes at Hogwarts... only, because the subject was so boring, nobody read the books except Hermione. If you remember this conversation, and if you look sharp when Harry turns over a book on the history of magic and sees the author's name and picture on the back cover, you might recognize Bathilda Bagshot at the same moment that Harry does. When Bathilda enters the scene, brace yourself; that's arguably the most terrifying scene in the entire series.

After the wedding breaks up, a lot of stuff happens really fast and there isn't space here to explain it all. Most of the characters you will see aren't that significant. The house the trio holes up in used to belong to Sirius Black's family, but since Sirius was killed in book/film #5, Harry actually owns it--along with the nasty but obedient house-elf named Kreacher. The other house-elf who soon turns up is Dobby, who has known Harry since book/film #2 and who, before Harry set him free, was enslaved to the Malfoy family. The people Harry, Ron, and Hermione "become" (via Polyjuice Potion) at the Ministry are new characters, so if you pay attention you'll know all there is to know about them. I think these roles were cast well, because you can really see the hero trio embodied in these grown-up characters.

The only two characters we see at the ministry that you may need to remember are Yaxley, the guy with the blond pony-tail who heads the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and who chases the trio right out of the Ministry; and Delores Umbridge, the poison-pink witch (and yet another former DADA teacher) who proves to have collected not just the locket stolen by Regulus Black but also the magic eye of Mad-Eye Moody. What happens to Ron during the trio's hair-raising escape from Yaxley's pursuit? He gets splinched, which is to say he left behind a part of himself--a hazard whenever you apparate in a rush.

The guy who smells Hermione's perfume through her protective enchantments is the leader of a party of Snatchers, who make a living rounding up "muggleborns" (witches and wizards with no known magical ancestry, like Hermione) and "halfbloods" (you figure it out), so that Voldemort's racist regime can apply the magical equivalent of thumbscrews to them. One of the Snatchers (the one who answers when his leader says, "Hey, Ugly") is Fenrir Grayback, the werewolf who gave Bill Weasley his facial scratches and his taste for raw meat. The Wizarding Wireless that Ron listens to is reading lists of magical-war casualties, and of witches or wizards who have gone Missing In Action.

In the scene where the Death Eaters search the Hogwarts school train for Harry Potter, a good-looking boy turns toward the camera and says, "My father will hear about this." This is Cormac McLaggen, a complete jerk who once competed with Ron both romantically and athletically. More significant as a character is the orthodontically challenged boy who stands up and says, "Hey, losers, he's not here!" This guy is Neville Longbottom, who has come a long way from the tubby, nervous, clumsy little boy we first met in Harry Potter 1.0, trying to catch his pet toad Trevor and earning House Points for standing up to his friends. By the end, Neville is going to be a real hero. What the movies don't tell you is that the same prophecy that anointed Harry as the "chosen one" could have applied to Neville equally well... up to a point. In a sense, they both end up fulfilling it, since Neville plays an important role in rubbing out Voldemort.

The village that Harry and Hermione visit, with such gruesome results, is Godric's Hollow. This was the birthplace of Harry's great ancestor Godric Gryffindor, one of the founders of Hogwarts, and the birthplace of Harry himself. It is also where Voldemort killed Harry's parents and, we now learn, where Dumbledore's family lived when that great man was but a boy. The handsome youth whose picture Harry recognizes at Bathilda Bagshot's house turns out to be Grindelwald, the ex-Dark Lord whom Voldemort questions about the Elder Wand. You will have to wait until Part 2 to find out how Grindelwald and Dumbledore were connected.

The silver doe that Harry follows into the woods to find the Sword of Gryffindor is a Patronus; that is, a manifestation of a witch or wizard's fighting spirit, produced by the "Expecto Patronum" charm which Harry shoots at the dementors in the basement of the Ministry. Harry's patronus is a silvery stag; Umbridge's, which you see sitting on her judicial bench, is a kitten. I think the glowing orb at the wedding, the one that spoke with Kingsley's voice, was also supposed to be a patronus. Mostly these are used to fight the dementors, which would otherwise steal every opportunity to suck your soul out through your mouth, or at least give you the screaming willies. They can also, apparently, be used to send messages. The question now is: Who sent the silver doe? (Readers of the book already know this. HP virgins watching the film will have to wait until Part 2 to find out.)

The prisoners in the dungeon at Malfoy Manor are Luna Lovegood (whom you have already met), Griphook the goblin (who works at the goblin-run Gringotts Bank), and Ollivander the wand-maker (who sold Harry his first wand in book/film #1, and who we briefly glimpsed being interrogated after Lucius Malfoy's wand blew up in Voldemort's hand). And the rat-faced Death Eater who minds the prisoners is Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail, whose silvery hand is a gift from Voldemort in exchange for an evil sacrifice that he made to return the Dark Lord to full physical form; Wormtail, who can turn into a rat whenever he wants, was a friend of Harry's parents whose betrayal led to their deaths.

By the way, unlike Dobby, who is a special effect, Griphook is played by an actual actor in makeup and prosthetics; the same actor who played the hero Ewok in Return of the Jedi. But then, this film is loaded with big-time actors playing bit parts. Part of this is a result of series continuity being preserved at any cost, so that characters who played an important role in previous books/movies frequently turn up for just a moment or two in this one. The extreme example of this is Fiona Shaw as Harry's Aunt Petunia. We see her for about 2 seconds, scowling through the windshield of the family car; she doesn't say a word, but she gets star billing in the end credits. And so do Robbie "Cracker" Coltrane as Hagrid, Richard "Withnail & I" Griffiths as Uncle Vernon, Julie "Billy Elliott" Walters as Mrs. Weasley, Ralph "The Constant Gardener" Fiennes as Voldemort, Timothy "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" Spall as Wormtail, Helena "A Room With a View" Bonham Carter as Bellatrix, Brendan "Into the Storm" Gleeson as Mad-Eye, Imelda "Vera Drake" Staunton as Umbridge, David "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" Thewlis as Lupin, Alan "Die Hard" Rickman as Snape, Bill "Love Actually" Nighy as Scrimgeour, Jason "Brotherhood" Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, John "Nineteen Eighty-Four" Hurt as Ollivander, and Rhys "Notting Hill" Ifans as Xenophelius Lovegood.

Plus there are several characters, played by big-time actors, who are only glimpsed: Michael Gambon as Dumbledore (in a flashback to his falling death), Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter (in a magically moving photo on the cover of her book), Frances de la Tour as Madame Maxime (standing next to Hagrid at the wedding), etc., etc., etc. Certain characters' voices are heard though the big-name actors playing them are offscreen, such as Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn (in an audio clip of him, in film 6, reacting in horror to a then-teenage Voldemort's suggestion that one might split his soul into seven horcruxes). And there are still more examples who haven't appeared yet in Part 1, but we will surely see them by the end of Part 2, such as Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall. We haven't officially found out yet that the person Harry sometimes sees looking back at him out of the mirror fragment he carries around is Dumbledore's brother Aberforth, who will be played by Ciaran Hinds.

Constricting Tackiness

I felt a constricting feeling as I passed the neighborhood ELCA Church of Lighted-Sign Tackiness today. It was displaying the message:


This is so bad that I was actually tempted to move to Nepal, just to distance myself from the awfulness of this bumper-sticker evangelism.

At least the original tacky bumper-sticker ("Autumn Leaves, Jesus Doesn't") had a certain paraprosdokian aptness, like the classic one-liner "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana." But changing "doesn't" to "stays" destroys that. It forces you either to ask where, in what sense, or in what way Jesus "stays," and how this impacts John 14:19 where Jesus says, "A little while longer and the world will see me no more," or John 16:5 ("But now I go away..."), etc.; or to entertain impious thoughts about whalebone-alternative corsets. Could this be a foreshadowing of a new rage for wasp-waisted women, encouraged in their cosmetic auto-asphyxia by pious thoughts about the holy relics, or at least blessed braces, they are wearing between their underthings and outerthings? Maybe we're talking about bakelite stays embossed with little cartoons of our Lord and Savior?

I don't know what course this particular ELCA ship is sailing, or what ill wind blew its signals awry, but what ever tack they mean to be on, I'm afraid they have missed their stays...

Homecoming Music

Last night I wrapped up my Thanksgiving Weekend with a visit to the St. Louis Symphony, where Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin returned from the "bigger and better things" he moved on to after serving as the SLSO's music director from 1979 to 1996. Headlining the program was Prokofiev's 5th Symphony, a work for which Slatkin and the SLSO won a Grammy for Best Classical Recording in 1984.

I have already done a "pscyho reading" of Prokofiev's Fifth, so I'll limit my comments on the Slatkin-SLSO performance I heard last night to saying that it was highly energetic and thoroughly absorbing, and that it brought out many details I had never noticed before.

Apparently due to widespread anticipation of this, there was a larger audience last night than at most of the Symphony concerts I have attended this season. The row where I always sit, snug against the rail at the front of what is professionally styled the "Right-of-Center Nosebleed Section," was completely full, as was much of the section behind me and most of the hall below me. During the first half, I was so overwhelmed by body heat that I moved toward a less-populated corner in Far-Right-Nosebleed so that I could perspire with less concern for the olfactory delicacy of those around me. Even then, I was surrounded by people who were enthusiastic about Prokofiev's most popular symphony (save, perhaps, for the "Classical" First), and the performance we heard.

I first became a Prokofiev enthusiast in college, when Soviet music in general began to captivate me, and when I blew lots of time in a music library well-stocked with scores and recordings thereof. My passion for this music was renewed by the week ago's performance of Alexander Nevsky, in which I screamed my head off in Russian and had a ball doing it. During the short work week leading up to Thanksgiving, I listened to all of Prokofiev's concertos (5 for piano, 2 each for violin and cello) and his seven symphonies (the historic boxed set conducted by Walter Weller). I'm now so "up" on Prokofiev that I can't wait to get hold of his operas, ballets, etc.

And though I do think Symphony No. 5 is an awesome piece, I now feel a strong conviction that the symphonic community is overdue for a deep re-exploration of Prokofiev's other, unjustly neglected symphonies--at the very least, his Second, Sixth, and Seventh. We may even find that the Third and Fourth have been unfairly judged, if we can just listen to them without dwelling on the fact that in them Prokofiev recycled (not to say plagiarized) material from his theatrical works of that period. The question should be, does the material serve its new purpose? Do these symphonies, as such, work? I think Symphonies 2, 6, and 7 definitely do. I would like to hear them all performed locally, so that we can evaluate them afresh, on their own terms.

Last night's concert opened with a 10-minute piece by Estonian-born, Berlin-resident composer Arvo Pärt, a still-living composer (born in 1935) whose musical style has evolved from Prokofievan Sovietism, through Boulezian serialism, to what our pre-concert lecturer Peter Henderson likes to call "liturgical minimalism." The version of Fratres for string orchestra and percussion (which sounds like a lot more than the claves and bass drum that it actually is) opened the concert with a soft-loud-soft dynamic arch and an atmosphere of timeless simplicity.

Topping up the first half was Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a set of variations on a theme Romantic violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini himself had treated to variations in his 24th and last Caprice for Solo Violin. According to Rachmaninoff's own program for the work, this spectacular piece for piano and orchestra tells a fanciful story about Paganini selling his soul to the devil, in exchange for musical mastery and sexual prowess, and his finally being dragged down into hell. Hmmm. That's an interesting narrative for a composer who, in life, was most successful as a heroically virtuosic pianist.

Playing the solo was Olga Kern, an attractive young lady who plays trascendently difficult music with unbelievable strength and stamina, perfect accuracy even at unheard-of speeds, and most importantly, vast depths of romantic expression. Her spectacular encore was not only an extra treat, but it was also amazing that she still had the energy to play it after the exertion of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I'm with the Lion...

Around St. Louis there is a chain of restaurants called Lion's Choice, which most directly competes with Arby's. In fact, on Chippewa a few blocks east of the city limits, Lion's Choice and Arby's both have locations a block apart. That's tight competition!

What keeps Arby's going is the vast improvement, over the past few years, in the quality and variety of the food they serve. What keeps Lion's Choice competing with them is the fact that they now serve the type of food Arby's made in the first place, and they do it better than Arby's did. Arby's makes a nice reuben on marbled rye. Lion's Choice sells a more than halfway decent French dip sandwich, with warm au jus on tap. Arby's specializes in a variety of premium sandwiches and side-dishes. Lion's Choice just piles shaved beef, pork, or chicken on a bun and, as an added bonus, sells itty-bitty chocolate-dipped ice cream cones (soft-serve, that is). While Arby's moves upmarket, Lion's Choice rushes in to fill the basic, meat-and-potatoes vacuum.

My latest dining surprise, then, came when I stumbled over a menu item on Lion's Choice's drive-through menu, something that outdoes Arby's: custard concretes, including such flavors as lemon and orange, as well as your garden-variety chocolate, strawberry, and so forth. I was so excited to see a lemon concrete on offer that I bought one and was captivated by its lemon-meringue-pie flavor. Another day I tried the orange one and enjoyed its thick, creamy, push-up-pop/dreamsicle flavor.

These are serious concretes! And at Lion's Choice of all places! I'm pretty sure they're using actual frozen custard, not just soft-serve ice cream. Soft-serve alone couldn't explain the "lemon-meringe-pie effect" that I got from my first Lion's Choice concrete. Plus, the texture is so thick and smooth. The concretes are served with a cleverly designed plastic spoon whose long handle and narrow, angled cup enables you to dip it straight up and down through the narrow opening in the cup's plastic lid, and retrieve a spoonful of the yummy stuff without having to wriggle it out of the opening and lose half of your spoonful. And though the flavoring is just a sugary syrup, the result is a distinct treat.

This is a serious threat to all the places (such as Hardee's, Chick-Fil-A, and Culver's) whose milkshakes and concretes daily tempt me to do dessert. The last place I remember seeing anything like a lemon shake was at Winstead's in Kansas City. I can now stop missing that place. Now the trouble will be how to say "No" to the part of me that wants to pull over at Lion's Choice on the way home from work. Be firm, self!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Prokofiev Week

This past week was another exciting performance week for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. I count it among the most enjoyable programs we've been a part of since I joined the chorus five seasons ago.

The first half of the program featured the orchestra only (no chorus), which meant a complimentary ticket for me both Friday and Saturday night. It was a treat to hear them play Igor Stravinsky's Symphony No. 1 in E-flat, interpreted by enthusiastic and charismatic home-team conductor David Robertson. This early, early, early piece (Opus 1, even!) sounds more like a late masterpiece of the Romantic era than a typical Stravinsky, though in his pre-concert lecture Robertson argued persuasively that the key elements of Stravinsky's style are all evident in it, albeit blended with artifacts of the preceding generation.

I'm not sure which I liked more: Robertson's musical examples showing (for instance) how the closing bars of the slow movement are related to the celebrated transition to the final scene of The Firebird, or his analogy to an exhibition of paintings by Mondrian showing how the artist moved from early, scenic representations (though always viewed through some type of lattice, such as a fence in the extreme foreground) toward a more abstract exploration of the lattice structure itself. Viewing Mondrian's paintings that way could give one an insight into the thought process involved in the artist's later work, suggesting that he was driven to contemplate the filters through which we view reality. In a similar way, Stravinsky's angular rhythms, twisting harmonies, skirling woodwind textures, and crisp, dry sonorities take on a new significance when placed against a background of broad, warm Romanticism. Their presence puts an unmistakably ironic stamp on music that could otherwise be mistaken for a late lost masterpiece by Borodin (particularly in the scherzo and the finale) or perhaps even Tchaikovsky (cf. the slow third movement).

Stravinsky never withdrew his E-flat Symphony from circulation, so apparently he was never ashamed of it. Nor should he have been. It is excellent music, though the work of a composer who had not yet formed his own unique style. The first movement struck me as the least derivative of the four--or if it does echo the work of elder composers (such as, say, Glazunov), at least it is not work I am very familiar with. It opens with a striking gesture and carries forward an intelligent yet good-humored argument. A chromatically side-winding secondary theme, volleyed between a succession of solo winds, continues to run through my head days after I first heard it. Both of the Borodinesque movements, Nos. 2 and 4, featured a triangle part, which I enjoyed watching played, especially since the boyish triangle-player performed his part with fierce concentration and incredible precision. Another riff I got a kick out of was Daniel Lee's brief cello solo, consisting of two phrases (repeated later in the same movement), the latter of which seems to rise up off the ground and disappear into thin air.

After the intermission, the chorus joined the orchestra on stage. First we sang three sacred choruses by Stravinsky, written for his Orthodox parish in Paris in the Church Slavonic language. The orchestra sat quietly while the chorus sang these chant-like, a capella numbers: a gentle Ave Maria, a rapid-fire Nicene Creed, and a slow plaintive Our Father whose final chord dovetailed with the opening of Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

This last piece is a huge cantata based on (and, beyond belief, actually longer than) Prokofiev's own film score for the Sergei Eisenstein epic about a 14th-century Russian leader who held off an invasion by Nordic crusaders at Pskov, in a decisive battle on the frozen Neva river. The cantata opens with an instrumental evocation of the vast motherland under the oppressive yoke of the Mongols. Then the chorus joins in a lyrical anthem of Kievan Rus patriotism, full of longing and hopeful devotion, seasoned with a bit of masculine bravado. Movement 3 introduces the Catholic crusaders with their mindless, soulless, perpetual chant, "Peregrinus expectavi pedes meos in cymbalis."
SIDEBAR: No performance of this cantata is complete without somebody attempting to interpret these Latin words. Numerous conflicting translations have been put forward, none of which make much sense; in the end, most interpreters have finally thrown up their hands and admitted that the crusaders are singing Latin nonsense, perhaps symbolic of their spiritual emptiness. More recently, a chorister who happened to be rehearsing both Nevsky and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms at the same time noted that each four-syllable segment of Prokofiev's Latin nonsense echoes a section of Stravinsky's celebrated psalm-setting. So, in that chorister's opinion, Prokofiev is taking a pot-shot at his resented rival Stravinsky, perhaps symbolically tarring him with the brush of "empty formalism" by putting his words in the invaders' mouths.

Robertson, meanwhile, posited yet another stunning theory during his pre-concert talk. Perhaps Prokofiev, already in 1938 when he wrote this music, regretted returning to the Soviet Union just in time to get caught up in the Stalinist terror. Perhaps, by borrowing random words from Stravinsky's choral masterpiece, he was sending his Americanized colleague a coded message, a contrite admission of his own hubris combined with a plaintive warning not to make the same mistake. "I, a pilgrim, thought I was going to be walking with cymbals on my feet," Prokofiev says in words that perhaps no one but Stravinsky, at that time, would have recognized. "Instead," he may as well have added, "they turned out to be shackles."
The cantata moves on to Movement 4, a patriotic song by turns raucous and sentimental, in which the peasants take up arms against the enemy and Prokofiev sets up themes that will form part of the terrifying Battle on the Ice of Movement 5. This long movement is really the heart and soul of the piece, and it was one of the most exciting pieces of instrumental music I have had the honor to witness from the stage of Powell Hall. The chorus only stands up for a relatively brief central section in which the Latin chant becomes hysterically and then ferociously loud. At one point we literally screamed three iterations of "Vincat arma crucifera hostis pereat!" (Victory at arms to the crossbearers! Death to the enemy!). The most dramatic part of the battle, however, happens after the chorus departs the scene. Clashing themes, in clashing keys, battle it out in what at first seems a glorious, patriotic battle and increasingly becomes a savage, gruesome melee. Here Prokofiev's music is so unafraid of being ugly that it achieves an unexpected kind of beauty. After building climax upon massive climax, each dwarfing the one before it until you are forced to stop thinking, "This is as big as anything could possibly get," Prokofiev brings the battle to a terrifyingly ambiguous close: for, musically, it is impossible to tell whether it is victory or defeat. Only in the shiveringly sweet coda, where one seems to hold a mortally wounded comrade in one's arms on the frigid battlefield, can one cheer his dying moments with the bittersweet news that the motherland has been saved.

Movement 6 was a gorgeous solo by mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, who wandered out on stage during the instrumental intro as if looking for something she had lost. Though I have never seen a translation of the text she sang, I understand that it was based on a scene in the film in which a maiden searches the battlefield for the body of her betrothed, avowing that she intends to recognize him not by his beauty but by his bravery. And finally, Movement 7 depicts Alexander's triumphant entry into Pskov, with the ringing of bells and the unequivocal affirmation of the anthem previously expressed in tones of hopeful longing. It's a transporting finish for a spectacular cantata and, as I may have mentioned before, one of the most fun symphonic programs I have been a part of.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter 7.1

This morning, I went to the big umpty-plex and took in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, the seventh of eight movies based on the popular seven-book series on the adventures of a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Then, to make sure I had it down right for your review, I came back after lunch and watched it again. And Robbie saw that it was good.

The film's pacing is a bit more leisurely than one might expect, but after the makers of the first six films sheared off as many details as they could while still leaving enough for the story to make sense--and, in one or two cases, arguably more so--it's nice to see the story opened up a bit more. Frankly, though, I can't see how they could have fit enough information to make sense of Book 7's plot in just one 2.5-hour movie. It could only have been done on a surrealist aesthetic.

Now, instead of doing a full-on review, I'm going to zoom in on three filmically-connected details of this film that I have been turning over in my mind. You see, in Harry Potter's magical world, there is a form of transportation called Apparition. One apparates by wishing to go from Point A to Point Z without passing Points B through Y in between. If one has the magical juice to pull it off, one can then disappear from Point A with a loud "pop" (known as "disapparating") and appear, moments later, at Point Z with a significant "crack" (known as "apparating").

They show a lot of this Apparition business in Harry Potter 7.1. From an external observer's point of view, Apparition is often depicted using an effect like smoke, or ink curling through water, zooming through the air and suddenly, at the last moment, taking human form. This effect originated in the fourth Potter film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell and the last film of the series not to be directed by David Yates. While Yates continues to use the visual concept innovated by Newell and his team, he has added the wrinkle of showing what Apparition looks like from the apparator's point of view. Now that looks like a surreal experience! It looks a bit like being squished down into a two-dimensional form and then pulled out of shape, stretched into a long skinny string, and threaded through a very tight self-healing hole in the folded fabric of space. The accompanying sound effect makes the experience sound like stretching a latex glove to cover someone's entire head--only where you're the glove! It's no wonder inexperienced apparators, like Harry for instance, often look queasy after going through it.

Among the many times this impressive feat is depicted in the movie, I noticed at least three times when, instead of using special effects to show the travelers' dramatic arrival, the scene cuts to an empty patch of ground while the apparating sound-effect informs us that our heroes have materialized off-camera. Then there's a camera-panning "slow reveal" of the condition in which the characters have arrived.

In two of these cases, I understood the dramatic reason for this "slow reveal." The first time it happens, a leafy forest canopy comes slowly into focus. The camera looks down and finds Harry sprawled in a pile of leaves; then Harry gets up and finds Hermione and Ron in distress. The third of three "slow reveals" begins with a shot of wet send, pans upward to find Harry sprawled on the seashore, and then follows him as he finds, first, Ron and Hermione who are OK, and then somebody else who isn't. In both cases, the drama of these discoveries is heightened by the "slow reveal." But the middle case puzzles me.

"Crack" - the camera is suddenly pointed at a stretch of road dusted with snow, which actually seems to shift from the impact of Harry and Hermione's arrival. The camera pans upward and finds the two friends standing, in perfectly good order, in the street of a charming upcountry village where the pub in the background is just closing and the church in the foreground is celebrating Christmas Evensong. What's with the slow reveal? Why the dramatic buildup to a fairly quaint, but really not very remarkable, English village? Could it be as simple as that David Yates wanted to set it up as an important location, and not just any old quaint English village?

Well, I don't have the answer to that one, dear reader. If you have a theory, by all means share it in the Comments. For the time being, let's just say that HP7.1 is a thoughtfully-paced, suspenseful, at times downright terrifying film about three young adults trying to fight a whole corrupt, subverted world. And when Part 1 ends, the emotions you may feel include grief and foreboding...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Immodest Proposal

First, read this article about academic fraud and how America's education system perpetuates it. It's not only highly enjoyable, but it's also thought provoking. Alas, one of the thoughts it provokes in me is: "How can I get into that racket!" Lord, have mercy...

I don't think anything can be done to fix this problem, short of totally changing the way education is done in America. It's easy to say we should aim for something modeled on the "European system" or whatever, when one has zero experience in that system. But there is one alternative I do have experience in, based on a very few classes I took in high school and college, coupled with a dollop of imagination and a rumor of how things are done Across the Pond. And here it is:

1. Abolish semesters, midterms, final exams, and term papers. Instead, for lower-level courses you go to a lecture-hall and listen to profs hold forth on the subjects you want to learn (which they do ad nauseam, world without end), and you read the required and recommended books.

2. Whenever you feel ready to test out of that subject (be it in 6 weeks or 16 or 66), you go and sit in a proctored exam where your assignment is to fill a blue book with your answer to a randomly drawn essay question on that subject. Your work is graded by three instructors, your grade is the average of their opinion of your work on a three-point scale where 1=fabulous, 2=quite good, and 3=just squeaked by. If your work doesn't even rise to a 3, you get nothing on your transcript. To improve your grade, you have to sit the exam again.

3. If you can't write an intelligent blue-book essay after several attempts, you may be advised to review your grammar and basic literacy skills.

4. Once you pass out of the lower level of a given subject, you are allowed to sign up for a tutor in that subject. His role is to meet with you no more than reasonably often to discuss the progress of your independent study. To wrap up each subject that you read at this level, you sit another blue-book exam.

5. Eventually, you may rise to a level of study where a major dissertation needs to be planned, written, and published. Your reader shouldn't let you write anything, not so much as a chapter, before you have presented a thesis, or an outline, or an abstract of your argument and defended it orally. Your degree is then based not on a written dissertation, which anybody could have written, but on your oral defense.

6. The written publication of the substance of what you argued is therefore a formality, documenting the sources for your opinion. And so it really hardly matters whether you wrote it with or without assistance, or whether you personally wrote it at all... though you won't have reached this level of study without having the ability to write it.

OK, it has flaws. One is that there will be a lot fewer advanced scholars (boo-hoo!) and a larger proportion of them will be "eternal students." Oh, well! At least having gotten a "1" on your blue-book exam, or your oral defense, will really mean something. What it will mean is that our industries, agencies, and enterprises will be in the hands of people who can think clearly and articulately.

DS9 Season 5

Season 5 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine aired in first-run syndication during the 1996-97 season, which corresponds to my first year at seminary when uncertainty about my vocation made me a nervous wreck. Loss of appetite and an active lifestyle so worked together that I was in the best physical shape of my life. But I had been assigned to a small, solitary dorm on the far side of campus from the main body of residential students, along with a couple of "no time to spare for newbies" upperclassmen, some Spanish high school exchange students who only had eyes for the nursing students in the next building over, two undergrads who could barely communicate in the English language, and exactly one classmate--with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. My new campus was a 12-hour drive from Mom and Dad, a distance made more significant by the "lemon" car I was driving. I was the only musically inclined student on campus that year, unless you count members of a polka band; so I had no one to talk shop with. And I had unbelievable amounts of homework to do every day, which kept me confined to quarters when I wasn't in the classroom or at work. Consequently, I was lonely and stressed out. It felt a lot like being on a deep-space station, light years from the good company I had grown used to in college. What a comfort it was to have DS9 to escape to, once a week at least!

Apocalypse Rising opens Season 5 with a follow-up to Odo's deduction, in the final scene of Season 4, that Klingon Chancellor Gowron is a changeling traitor, being used by the Dominion to turn the Alpha Quadrant's great powers against each other. Now, Sisko, Odo, and O'Brien undergo cosmetic surgery so they can pass as Klingons, and take Klingon comportment lessons from Worf en route to an awards ceremony, where they hope to smoke out the Dominion agent. The changeling turns out to be General Martok, who at this stage in the series (only his second appearance) is still an expendable character and saved the trouble of killing Gowron for a later episode. Among the numerous points of interest--and boy, do I wish I could show you a picture of all three fake-Klingon officers standing shoulder to shoulder!--this episode is notable for depicting Odo's depression after becoming a "solid," or humanoid, as a punishment by his people at the end of Season 4.

The Ship is DS9's 100th episode, the one where Sisko & crew find a Jem'Hadar ship crashed on a Gamma Quadrant planet and decide to salvage it. While they are doing so, however, another Jem'Hadar ship arrives and blows their runabout out of the sky. Now they have their backs to the wall... the "wall" being a completely anti-intuitive, upside-down alien ship surrounded by do-or-die shock troops who actually know how it works. F. J. Rio appears for the third and last time as Muñiz, an ill-fated young engineer whom O'Brien holds in tender, fatherly regard. The Vorta whose negotiation tactics bring about tragic results for both sides is played by Kaitlin Hopkins (pictured), who in the Voyager episode "Live Fast and Prosper" played an alien con artist who impersonated Capt. Janeway for profit.

Looking for Par'Mach in All the Wrong Places is Star Trek's take on Cyrano de Bergerac. When Quark gets a visit from his Klingon ex-wife Grilka (cf. Season 3's "The House of Quark"), both Quark and Worf become smitten with her. Since Worf (having been stripped of his family honor) can offer no suit to such a great Klingon lady, he reluctantly agrees to help Quark pursue her--going so far as to fight a ceremonial battle using wads of (thank God) unspoken technobabble to make Quark's body mirror Worf's movements. It's an episode that made me laugh hard, and it also brings Worf and Jadzia together romantically, a coupling that seemed increasingly inevitable over the previous year. Besides Mary Kay Adams and Joseph Ruskin reprising their "House of Quark" roles as Grilka and Tumek, this episode features five-time Trek guest Phil Morris as the Klingon who challenges Quark to do battle. As a child, Morris had appeared in one of the earliest episodes The Original Series; his Trek roles also include a Starfleet cadet (in one of the TOS feature films), a Jem'Hadar (later in DS9), and a lost 21st-century astronaut (in Voyager's "One Small Step").

Nor the Battle to the Strong is Star Trek's riff on "The Red Badge of Glory." Desperate to find a real story when his first journalistic assignment--a profile of Dr. Bashir--threatens to be a total bore, Jake Sisko eggs the Julian into joining the medical corps of a starfleet colony besieged by the Klingons. His dreamed-of opportunity to cover "surgery under fire" turns out to be a nightmare, however. After becoming convinced that he is a coward, Jake finally risks his life covering his friends' retreat, and ends up publishing a soul-searching article about his experience. All's well that ends well (perhaps a bit too easily and abruptly, though). The guest cast includes Daytime Emmy-winner Andrew Kavovit (pictured; late of "As the World Turns") as a young hospital orderly who takes Jake under his wing; Karen Austin (who played B'Elanna's Klingon mother on Voyager) as a doctor; Mark Holton (who also guested on Voyager) as a blue-skinned Bolian; and five-time Trek guest Danny Goldring as the wounded soldier whose brave death sends Jake's self-esteem into a tailspin.

The Assignment is the episode that introduces the pah-wraiths, as it were the "fallen angels" of Bajoran mythology, and their enmity with the wormhole "prophets." It begins when Keiko O'Brien comes home from a botanical survey of Bajor and informs Miles that she isn't Keiko, but actually a non-corporeal being that has taken possession of her body, and will kill Keiko if he doesn't do exactly what it says. This being, known in Bajoran lore as a kosst-amoran (though this designation inexplicably changed, in later episodes, to kosst-amojan), is vulnerable to the same weapon it attempts to force Miles to turn on the wormhole--a fact that O'Brien turns to his advantage at the end. It was interesting to see Rosalind Chao play a total creep for once; perhaps this is what led the writers to make the unfortunate choice to have Jake be the next victim of pah-wraith possession. But that's a matter for another season!

Trials and Tribble-ations is DS9's episode celebrating the 30th anniversary of Star Trek. It does this by inserting the DS9 cast into an episode of classic Trek--and what could be more classic than "The Trouble with Tribbles?" Charlie Brill reprises his TOS role as Arne Darvin, a Klingon surgically altered to look human, who uses the Bajoran "orb of time" in a bid to avenge himself on history. Worf squirms when questioned about the change in the appearance of Klingons ("We do not discuss it with outsiders") and explains how the tribbles came to be regarded as a mortal foe of the Klingon Empire (Odo: "Do they still sing songs of the Great Tribble Hunt?") O'Brien and Bashir get caught up with Scotty and Chekov in an interspecies bar brawl (aftermath pictured). Jadzia plays the part of every fan-kid who ever dreamed of being on the original Enterprise and meeting Capt. Kirk. Jack Blessing (late of "Moonlighting") and James W. Jansen (who had guested as a Bajoran in DS9's first season) play "time cops" whose names are anagrams of Mulder and Scully. And a very good time is had by all.

Let He Who Is Without Sin... is an irritating episode for many reasons, not least of which is the grammatical error in the title (based on John 8:7, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her"). Let him, mind. Worf and Jadzia plan a romantic holiday on the pleasure world of Risa, only to be joined by Bashir, Leeta, and Quark. This brings out the petulant child in Worf, leading him to sympathize with a socio-political sect that objects to people having fun while war with the Dominion is brewing. The idea that anyone would actually object, on principle, to people being allowed to take time off to recharge and enjoy themselves is another thing that gets up my nose. With Worf's unfortunate help, the "New Essentialists" seize control of Risa's weather-control system, threatening to revert it to its original rain-forest environment and thus to destroy the Risian economy. Julian and Leeta break up, Worf and Jadzia reconcile (the latter showing a lot more spots than ever seen before), Quark gets laid, the planet is saved, and the ranks of Star Trek guest stars grow to include Vanessa Williams and Monte Markham... but it's still a lame episode.

Things Past is such a bizarre episode that I don't know where to begin describing it. By means of some heretofore undreamt-of technobabble, Dax, Sisko, and Garak are sucked into Odo's guiltiest memory from the period when he worked for the Cardassians on what was then called Terok Nor. It gradually becomes apparent that the four Bajorans whom our friends have become in this off-bubble reality were wrongly executed for the crime of trying to blow up Gul Dukat--who, for his part, is shown more than ever to be a slimy, self-justifying despot. Kurtwood Smith, late of The Dead Poets' Society, Robocop, and The Crush, added the role of Thrax, Odo's predecessor as Security Chief of Terok Nor, to his list of Trek credits--which also include the President of the Federation in Star Trek VI and the villain in Voyager's two-part episode "Year of Hell."

The Ascent is the episode where Jake Sisko gets his own quarters, along with roommate Cadet Nog, on field assignment from Starfleet Academy. While they go through all the pains of "The Odd Couple," Quark and Odo struggle for survival on a freezing planet with a marginally breathable atmosphere, no food, and only one chance to summon help--i.e. to climb to an all-but-airless mountain peak with a heavy transmitter. Quark manages it part of the way while dragging a wounded Odo as well. For all the chemistry that has existed between these two characters from the beginning of the series, this is really the only episode that focuses primarily on their relationship, and that gives actors Shimerman and Auberjonois any considerable amount of time to play off each other. For that reason it is an important and well-liked episode.

Rapture is the one where Sisko gets zapped by some kind of plasma whatsit and begins to have visions regarding Bajor's past and future, courtesy of the wormhole aliens-cum-prophets. Unfortunately, with the visions comes some kind of medical technobabble that increasingly threatens the captain's life--to say nothing of Bajor's application to join the Federation, which at last seems to be going forward until this business starts. Sisko's commanding officer is uncomfortable with the whole Emissary business and how the captain's increasingly erratic behavior impacts his duty as a Starfleet officer, while Jake just wants his father back and certainly doesn't want him to die. The outcome is a life-saving surgery by Dr. Bashir that leaves Sisko bereft of the new sensorium he had lately developed. It's a heartbreaking and thought-provoking episode, dramatizing the question: Would you risk your life for the ability to experience transcendent realities?

The Darkness and the Light is the episode that puts the baby Kira is carrying--which, remember, isn't Kira's but the O'Briens' baby--in jeopardy. The disfigured Cardassian pictured here, Silaran Prin by name, turns out to be the mastermind behind a series of diabolically ingenious assassinations. The victims: members of Kira's old resistance cell, particularly those who joined her in wiping out a certain Cardassian gul's family and staff. Prin, a household retainer who was maimed but survived, opts to spare the innocent child's life, but only after cutting it out of Kira's body in one of Trek's nastiest depictions of homicidal insanity. Randy Oglesby, who played seven characters spanning all four Trek spinoffs, here appears as Prin. William Lucking makes his second of three appearances as the ill-fated Furel, whose character dies off-screen in this episode along with Diane Salinger's Lupaza (previously seen with Furel in Season 3's "Shakaar"). Jennifer Savidge, late of "St. Elsewhere" and "JAG," plays Trentin Fala, a frightened Bajoran clerk who comes to a truly gruesome end; while the especially ineffectual Bajoran deputy in this episode is played by three-time Trek guest Christian Conrad.

The Begotten is the episode where Kira finally delivers the O'Briens' baby, in spite of jealousy between Miles and Bajor's First Minister Shakaar (Duncan Regehr in his last of three DS9 appearances). While Bajoran childbirth is depicted as a curiously relaxing experience, Odo goes through a much more stressful parent-child thing, caught between the Bajoran scientist who taught him to shape-shift (James Sloyan in his second of two appearances as Dr. Mora) and the baby changeling Odo now has the opportunity to teach. Pictured here is about the farthest reach of the infant changeling's education before it sickens. As a dying gift, it restores Odo's shape-changing abilities, which he has missed badly since the end of Season 4.

For the Uniform is why Sisko pursues Eddington, the ex-Federation security officer who now leads a Maquis terrorist cell, much as Inspector Javert pursued Valjean in Les Misérables--a parallelism that Eddington himself points out. This is also the episode that introduces the holographic communicator, by which the person at the other end of the line seems to be standing in the room with you--though I don't remember seeing this gimmick after Season 5. Like the later episode "In the Pale Moonlight," the point of this episode seems to have something to do with obsession, the compromises some leaders must make with their own conscience, and the slippery slope of ethical choices that can lead one to do evil things for a good cause. The guest cast includes Eric Pierpoint, late of "Alien Nation," in one of his five Trek roles.

In Purgatory's Shadow is the first part of a two-episode arc in which Worf and Garak follow the trail of a distress call from Enabran Tain (Garak's Obsidian Order mentor, remember?) into the Gamma Quadrant, only to get captured by the Jem'Hadar and held on a prison asteroid with several surprising prisoners. One of them is Klingon General Martok (the genuine, one-eyed version of him, for the first time). Another is Dr. Bashir, whose changeling double is back on DS9 raising who-knows-what mischief. And of course, there is Enabran Tain himself, in the last of his four appearances. Garak finds Tain in the final stages of terminal heart disease, with just enough time to acknowledge Garak as his son. While I'm mentioning so many guest appearances, Melanie Smith succeeds two previous actress is playing Ziyal in this, her first of six appearances before the character's death in Season 6's "Sacrifice of Angels"; here she is seen declaring her love for Garak, and defying her father Dukat just as he is about to grasp power as the new leader of a Cardassia that (surprise!) has just decided to join the Dominion.

By Inferno's Light concludes the two-episode arc in which Garak overcomes severe claustrophobia to jerry-rig some technobabble in the space behind the walls of the asteroid prison he shares with Worf, Bashir, Martok, and others. Garak races to finish his work so that our friends can escape before Worf gets beaten to a bloody pulp by a series of gladiatorial encounters with the Jem'Hadar. The alpha male of whom, by the way, is one of five Trek characters played by James Horan, and the only Jem'Hadar character ever to appear in more than one episode (by virtue of this being a two-parter). The Vorta in charge of the prison camp is played by Ray Buktenica, late of "Rhoda" and "House Calls."

Doctor Bashir, I Presume features a crossover appearance by Robert Picardo of Voyager, here playing not the holographic Doctor but the human original on whom he was based, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman. Zimmerman offers Julian the chance to serve as the template for a "Long-term Medical Hologram," a process which involves digging up everything he can about the doc's personality and, naturally, his past. For example, Zimmerman throws himself at Leeta, Bashir's most recent "ex," and thus serves as the catalyst for Rom and Leeta declaring their feelings for each other. More discomfitingly, Zimmerman also unearths Julian's parents, Amsha and Richard Bashir (pictured). At first, you think Julian is squirming simply because of his mother's smothering pride and his father's lower-class, grifter character, which must be embarrassing for a public-school-type like their son. But then their dirty family secret comes out: as a small, physically awkward, developmentally delayed boy, Julian received an illegal genetic-resequencing treatment which turned him into the brilliant, well-coordinated super-dude he is today. Which makes him an abomination to humanity, after the horror of the Eugenics Wars and the threat of people like Khan Singh. As Julian faces the end of his medical and Starfleet career, his father offers himself up as a sacrificial lamb to satisfy the wrath of Federation law. Playing Bashir's parents are Brian George, who had a recurring role on "Seinfeld" and also played a guest role on Voyager; and Fadwa El Guindi, a UCLA professor of anthropology and advocate for Arab-Americans, in her only acting role to date.

A Simple Investigation begins with two Finneans (aliens with nostrils all over their foreheads) incinerating an operative of the Idanians (bumpy-headed aliens who wear blue hooded cloaks). The Finneans are looking for a data crystal belonging to a beautiful woman named Arissa, who was supposed to meet with the Idanian around the time he was killed. Arissa, who has an implant enabling her to connect her brain directly to a computer, is caught trying to access the passenger manifest of the ship the Idanian came in on, and she explains to Odo that she is trying to run away from the Orion Syndicate. Agreeing to protect her, Odo hides Arissa in his own quarters and soon finds himself in love with her. You have to wonder, though: How does lovemaking work between a humanoid and a shapeshifter? The data crystal turns out to hold Arissa's true memories, revealing that she is a deep-cover Idanian agent who has been surgically altered to look human. This brings about a bittersweet ending for Odo's first time around the bases. Three-time Trek guest Dey Young plays Arissa. The two Finneans are played by the late Nicholas Worth, who played three Trek characters in four episodes, and by John Durbin, who played four characters in five Trek episodes.

Business as Usual is the chilling episode that also happened to serve as cast-member Siddig's directorial debut. In it, Quark accepts a financial lifeline tossed to him by his arms-dealer cousin Gaila, played by Josh Pais of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and "Law & Order." Unfortunately, the job involves working for the elegantly amoral Hagath (played by Steven Berkoff of Rambo II and Octopussy) and the homicidally insane Regent of Palamar (played by 1940s and -50s tough-guy Lawrence Tierney, who had also guested on TNG). Quark's agony as his inconvenient conscience awakens (thanks to spending too much time surrounded by Federation do-gooders) is as poignant as his treatment by his Federation friends is unjust. The one thing I dislike about this episode is how Jadzia et al give Quark a cold shoulder just when he most needs their help and support, simply because (at the moment) he doesn't deserve it... and then, when it's all over, they get back together and all is forgiven. I couldn't help thinking that friends like that aren't worth chasing after. On the other hand, Quark's moral dilemma is true. His reaction to the Regent's order is priceless: "28 million dead? Can't we just wound some of them?"

Ties of Blood and Water reunites Kira with the Cardassian Resistance leader who, in the earlier episode "Second Skin," mistook her for his deep-cover-agent daughter. Kira wants Tekeny Ghemor to lead Cardassia's government in exile, now that the empire has joined the Dominion; but Ghemor reveals that he is dying, and that he has come to DS9 to ask her to play the role of his daughter one more time. It is a Cardassian custom that the dying pass on their secrets to their heirs, including an account of their personal and political enemies and all their dirty laundry. As Ghemor begins pouring this out on Kira, Gul Dukat arrives with the Vorta Weyoun (in a new incarnation since the clone who was killed in "To the Death"), demanding Ghemor's extradition. Meanwhile, Kira is torn between anger at Ghemor for the newly-revealed role he played in Cardassia's occupation of Bajor and guilt at having missed her own father's death. This episode boasts the first of two appearances by Thomas Kopache as Kira's father, in addition to his six other Trek roles; William Lucking's third and last appearance as Furel; and Lawrence Pressman's third and last appearance on DS9, two of which were as Tekeny Ghemor.

Ferengi Love Songs is the one where a discouraged Quark runs home to Ferenginar to visit his "moogie" Ishka, only to catch her having an affair with Grand Nagus Zek. Among a series of people who materialize in Quark's closet is F.C.A. Liquidator Brunt, who offers Quark a chance to get his business license back... if he agrees to break up Zek and Ishka. This Quark does, only to find out that it is his mother's "lobes for business" that have so far protected the increasingly forgetful Zek from financial disaster. This is all part of Brunt's plan to take over as Nagus. Quark, pricked once again by his newly-grown conscience, repents of his actions and helps Ishka turn the tables on Brunt, saving Zek's career as Nagus. It's a light, aggressively silly episode featuring the late Cecily Adams, daughter of Don "Get Smart" Adams and better known as a casting director than an actress, in her first of four appearances as Ishka (who was previously played by SCTV's Andrea Martin). It also briefly features Hamilton Camp as Eliminator Leck, a rare Ferengi who cares more about killing than earning profit; Leck returned in Season 7's "The Magnificent Ferengi."

Soldiers of the Empire is the episode that shows what a Star Trek series based on a Klingon ship might look like. Nearly all of it takes place on board the Rotarran, Martok's first command since escaping from a Jem'Hadar prison camp. Taking Worf and Jadzia along as officers, Martok leads the Rotarran on a delicate mission to search for survivors of a missing Klingon battleship near the border of Dominion-controlled Cardassian space. His crew is dispirited by a recent record of defeats and retreats, and as Martok hesitates to lead them into battle, they grow closer to mutiny. Worf finally challenges him for command of the ship, leading to a nearly life-threatening combat that proves to be the turning point for the Rotarrans. The episode features a lot of singing in the Klingon language (which seems to come more easily than speaking it), as well as several habitual Trek guest actors: Sandra Nelson (who also appeared on Voyager), Rick Worthy (whose five other Trek roles included the recurring Xindi scientist Jannar on Enterprise), and the late David Graf, who played Amelia Earhart's navigator in Voyager's Season 2 episode "The 37's."

Children of Time is the emotionally crushing episode in which the Defiant gets caught inside a bubble of technobabble (technobubble?) around a Gamma Quadrant planet. Once inside the field, the Defiants are welcomed by their own descendants, a happy community built on the site of where the Defiant crashed 200 years ago... or will crash, when they attempt to leave orbit... Ugh! Again, to quote Miles O'Brien, "I hate temporal mechanics!" This puts the Defiants in a quandary: To get back home to their careers and families, they must risk erasing an entire world from history. When they decide to sacrifice all that they know so that their descendants on this world can live, their attempt to re-create the crucial crash is finally thwarted by Odo. Not our Odo, but the other Odo, who has been back in time and had 200 years to carry a torch for Kira, who is supposed to die shortly after the crash. After revealing his love to her, the older Odo sabotages the Defiant's attempt to recreate history, effectively sacrificing a whole world for the woman he loves. Ouch! Emmy-winner Gary Frank (of TV's "Family") plays Yedrin Dax, the future Trill host who will never be. Jennifer Parsons, who had appeared in Voyager's pilot episode, plays O'Brien's descendent Miranda. Among the child actors in this episode are Davida Williams of "Lizzie McGuire" and Doren Fein of "Hearts Afire."

Blaze of Glory is the one where Sisko recruits Eddington out of his prison cell to help him stop a Maquis missile-attack that could trigger a disastrous galactic war. After spending a lot of time together in a runabout, dodging Jem'Hadar ships in the badlands, they finally arrive at a Maquis outpost that has already been ransacked by the Dominion. The whole missile thing turns out to have been a ruse to enable Eddington to rescue his Maquis wife, but after all his obnoxious antiheroism he ends up selling his life dearly to cover his comrades' retreat against a Jem'Hadar attack. Meanwhile, back on DS9, Cadet Nog works out a way to earn the respect of the loud, rowdy Klingons, as in the scene pictured here, where he pulls rank on General Martok. Whew! That's one Ferengi with guts!

Empok Nor is the name of an abandoned Cardassian space station similar to DS9 (which, you'll remember, was built by the Cardassians as well). In this episode, O'Brien leads a team of engineers to Empok Nor to salvage components they need for maintenance on DS9, now that Cardassia's treaty with the Dominion prevents them from buying replacement parts. It turns out to be a dark, spooky place full of booby traps, to say nothing of a pair of cryogenically-preserved Cardassian berserkers whose natural inclination toward homicidal xenophobia has been enhanced by drugs. With Garak along to disarm the traps and Cadet Nog holding a flashlight (mounted on a big phaser rifle), the rest of the party consists of never-seen-before characters. You know from the start that all four non-recurring crewmen are going to die, don't you? And they do, they do. In such gruesome ways, too! Star Trek hasn't seen so much gratuitous death since TOS's "The Apple." Things get really hairy when Garak becomes contaminated with the crazy drug, forcing O'Brien to revert to his earlier calling as a soldier with particular experience in shooting Cardassians. One of Star Trek's darkest, creepiest, most paranoid episodes, it guest-stars Marjean Holden of the sci-fi series "Crusade" (a spinoff from Babylon 5) and the syndicated fantasy series "Beastmaster," as well as Tom Hodges of the 1980s sitcom "Valerie."

In the Cards injects a note of levity into a dark time, as a buildup of Dominion forces signals a coming war and Kai Winn agonizes over whether Bajor should sign a non-agression pact with the Dominion. Jake decides that the very thing to raise his father's spirits would be to purchase a Willy Mays rookie card at an auction at Quark's. Unfortunately, the lot containing the baseball card gets won by a mad scientist named Giger (pictured), who needs a piece of technobabble from the same lot to complete his "cellular regeneration and entertainment chamber"--a solution to the problem of death based on the theory that the reason people die is that their cells get bored. If you don't see how wacky this is, picture a character who opens his sales pitch with the question, "Do you want to die?" Picture a series of bizarre tasks that Nog and Jake have to do in order to collect the things Giger is willing to trade the card for. Picture Quark saying, "Sold! To the blue man with the good shoes!" That isn't even in the top five funniest lines in this episode, which has a little bit of political intrigue, a little bit of danger and menace, and a lot of warmth based on the bond between father and son. If you haven't seen it, this episode may surprise you! Playing Dr. Giger is Brian Markinson, whose other Trek roles include a suicidal alien on TNG, an ill-fated Voyager crewman, and the Vidiian physician who steals his face.

Call to Arms brings Season 5, and my reviews of Deep Space Nine, to a close. In it, Sisko & co. mine the entrance to the wormhole with self-replicating, cloaked thingummies in order to prevent further Dominion reinforcements from passing through. Completing this task proves to be a seat-of-the-pants business as Gul Dukat orders the expected assault on DS9, forcing Federation personnel to evacuate. Of course Kira, Odo, Quark, Rom and his newlywed wife Leeta stay behind--and, surprising everyone, so does Jake, who is always looking out for a story to write. Sisko realizes that he can't go back to fetch his son, but then, he has purposely left behind one other possession: the baseball that he keeps on his desk, as a silent vow that he will return...

And so the year ends on a grim note, hooking us for Season 6's opening arc in which Sisko & friends work on taking back DS9 from the Cardassians and their Dominion allies. Meanwhile, the happy ending of my "Sem 1" year is that I made friends with the unlikeliest people, worked super-hard (in a rather obsessive-compulsive manner, actually) so that my top grades boosted my confidence, and with the aid of good habits such as Star Trek, started to relax. I've been putting on weight ever since! The happy ending for Season 5, meanwhile, was the expectation of Season 6 to come, and the inevitable epic conflict between the Federation and the Dominion.

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, 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.