Sunday, August 29, 2021

311. Hymn on the Miracles of Christ

I'm not sure how successful this attempt at a hymn roughly running through the miracles of Jesus is, but it's what I came up with after considerable effort. It's kind of an attempt to view the miracles from a word-and-sacrament angle. I surprised myself a bit by not designing it as one of the "sing the first and last stanza and insert whatever is approrpriate for today's lesson in between" type of hymns, but I guess the subject didn't really cry out for that kind of treatment. Or maybe you can use excerpts of it that way, anyway. EDIT: I ended up writing an original tune for this hymn. See below.
O Christ, in all Your wonders
You show men who You are:
God-Man, whom nothing sunders,
Whose way no pow'r can bar;
Whose Father speaks as thunder;
Whose Spirit wings afar;
Who Satan's storehouse plunders—
Our bright and Morning Star.

Who is this Star that rises?
Behold, what promised signs,
What grace He exercises,
What prophecies He mines!
His healing touch surprises
The lame, dumb, deaf and blind;
Whatever man devises,
No clearer claim we find.

He gave, at Cana's wedding,
His first attesting sign,
Delight and pleasure spreading
With water turned to wine.
Then He, to slaughter heading,
Gave that on which we dine,
The vintage His veins shedding
Ten thousand times as fine.

He fed His congregation
Twice with a sign of bread;
Yet at His declaration,
A greater we are fed.
While Moses' generation
Ate manna yet are dead,
His flesh as our collation
Robs death of all its dread.

A tempest terrifying
He hushed, and all was still;
The dead as well as dying
Awakened at His will.
Baptism, too, applying
Flood's pow'r to drown and kill,
Now saves us, Christ supplying
His life, our lives to fill.

He set the demons fleeing
That minds and bodies bound;
Men's inmost nature seeing,
He spoke words that astound.
His word, still delving, freeing,
Works with a pow'r profound:
In it we have our being;
On it our hope we found.

Whatever wondrous story
You hear that Christ achieved,
Above all, give Him glory
That freely you believed
And through His triumph gory
A gracious God retrieved,
Your life an offertory
Less given than received.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Limerickal Shrug

My aunt had a porcelain trivet
The shape of a tufty-eared civet.
I thought that it mattered,
But she, when it shattered,
Said, "Had I a git, I would shiv it."

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Bring Back Cerberus

Bring Back Cerberus
by Phillip Gwynne
Recommended Ages: 13+

If Dominic Silvagni asked the classics prof at his elite, Queensland boys' prep to explain what Cerberus is, he'd have learned that it's the three-headed hell-hound from Greek mythology that Harry Potter knew as Fluffy. But what he actually asks, after receiving a text in Latin, is that his life is being threatened ("Schoolboy, you're dead meat"). But that's literally the least of Dom's problems. He has a chance of making it to the world youth games, if nothing messes up his training as a middle distance runner. But it seems everything is doing just that. The third installment of a debt to a secretive, all-powerful, all-knowing organization known (but not very widely) as The Debt requires him to steal a prototype for a cellphone that doesn't exist yet. A ruthless private eye wants him to do some of his dirty work, and knows just the sort of threats that will make Dom comply. An equally ruthless billionaire scrobbles the kid at gunpoint, for his own troubling ends.

To function under all this pressure, Dom must risk blowing up his running hopes, his school career, his family, his fragile relationship with the girl he loves, and the feelings of the kid down the street who just came out of a coma that Dom feels kinda responsible for. He has to say and do some nasty things, develop an easy conscience with things like lying, hacking and stealing, and learn to act like way more of a jerk than he knows he ought to. The carrot is that if he completes this assignment and three more after it, he'll be free of The Debt. The stick is that if he fails, he'll lose a pound of flesh. Really.

Dom takes bigger risks in this book than in the previous two installments, moving around in a wider range of dangerous spots in the Gold Coast area of Australia, getting caught ditching the unditchable school, making enemies, hurting friends and generally doing some morally questionable stuff for an organization whose agenda he hasn't even begun to understand. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing at home and his shenanigans are at the heart of it. It'll most likely only grow in the books to come, making you wonder whether he hadn't been better off surrendering that pound of flesh at the start. Kind of a teen spy caper with a hero who keeps getting in deeper trouble, it'll leave you wondering what in the south of Queensland will be left standing when Dom's debt is paid.

This is the third installment of "The Debt," a six-book series by the Australian author of several children's books including The Queen with the Wobbly Bottom, and a number of other YA novels such as Jetty Rats and Swerve. Other titles in this series include Catch the Zolt, Turn Off the Lights, Fetch the Treasure Hunter, Yamashita's Gold and Take a Life.

Free Guy

I had lots of fun watching this movie, an action-comedy about a non-player character (NPC) in an online game who develops into the world's first artificial intelligence life form. It stars Ryan Reynolds, of Deadpool fame, as a guy literally named Guy who realizes that there could be more to life than ducking behind the counter during a bank robbery, when he notices the girl of his dreams walking down the street. The trouble is, she's one of the "sunglasses people," the heroes of this world, who are above paltry things like the law or talking to non-sunglasses people like him. Nevertheless, he perseveres, acquiring sunglasses (which reveal all kinds of ways of collecting points in the game) and leveling up until she starts to notice him – and fall in love with him.

Only, she's a real-world person who plays the game because she suspects the game manufacturer stole code from her and she's looking for the evidence, and when the bad guy realizes what she's up to, he starts messing with Guy's world in an attempt to stop her. The result is a wild, weird, reality-hopping, action-packed adventure that hits an unusual range of emotional notes for its type of movie.

Naturally, it excels in the kind of humor that Ryan Reynolds specializes in – like a scene of slow-motion carnage that his character watches with a dreamy expression and a romantic pop song playing in his imagination, which you see multiple times in the Deadpool franchise. Also there's a scene in which Guy and the girl are speeding down a street while an unseen force hurls cars, trees and buildings at them, which should remind anyone who saw it of R.I.P.D. (Edit: Channing Tatum has a scene that also plays to the type established for him by such films as Magic Mike and Hail, Caesar.) The characters are an entertaining ensemble, including a certain Dude who is basically a physically pumped but mentally cracked copy of Guy. The baddie is played by Taika Waititi, the multiple-award-winning actor-writer-director of such movies as Thor: Ragnarok, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Jojo Rabbit, who does an excellent job of making you want to punch him in the face.

The other cast members are effective if not particularly well known to me, other than a minor part for Channing Tatum, some celebrity cameos and some A-list actors in the voice cast. The romantic leads in the real world are played by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, both known for roles in things I haven't seen such as Killing Eve and Stranger Things. I thought they were all good, and other than an over-indulgent epilog I think the story shaped up pretty well, with tons of crazy imagery and a suspenseful, explosive climax. It made me laugh out loud several times, got me slightly choked up a couple times (I swear, at least one of those moments was because of the suspense) and of course, the inappropriateness of some of the humor was not lost on me, but is (once again) very much in keeping with Ryan Reynolds' creative style.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) You could almost pick any scene of Waititi being a terrible boss, but I got a special kick out of the moment where he tries to jump up from lying on the floor, fails twice, then scrambles to his feet and gives a little hop to cover for it. (2) The sequence in which the whole internet turns to watch the live stream of Guy's climactic run off the edge of the world he knows, and you sense that everyone is rooting for him. (3) Guy kisses Molotovgirl in the park. The music rises and then, in mid-kiss, the scene cuts to Millie in her apartment, musicless, watching the scene on her screen, then cuts back to the music and everything. I'd like to count as part of this scene the sequel kiss in which it all comes back to Guy in the form of a visible explosion of lines of programming. And maybe an honorable mention would have to go to the scene in which Millie realizes she let an AI character kiss her (as, up to that moment, she assumed Guy was another gamer). "Oh, he found the button all right" is one of the biggest laugh-lines in the flick.

I'd better cut myself off there, because several other honorable mentions are lining up. On the way out of the theater tonight, I overheard a guy saying he thought the movie was stupid. But the woman he was with disagreed, and I'm with her. I think it holds up as a visual feast, an emotionally engaging adventure and a vehicle for Ryan Reynolds' particular style of comedy. And it's just plain fun.

Friday, August 13, 2021

A Thorn Among the Lilies

A Thorn Among the Lilies
by Michael Hiebert
Recommended Ages: 15+

When her older daughter asks to have her future told for her birthday, Detective Leah Teal – the lead and, indeed, sole detective of the Alvin, Alabama police department – gets more than she paid for. Madame Crystalle transmits a cryptic message to her that seems to line up, detail for detail, with the evidence found on a dead body two days later. It aligns even more perfectly with a months-old case from up near Birmingham – a Jane Doe crime whose victim closely resembles the one found on the shore of Alvin's Willet Lake. It seems the tiny town of 5,000 souls has another serial killer in it, and they're not waiting long to choose their next victim.

The refreshing thing about watching Leah Teal try to crack a murder case isn't so much that she's an ace at interrogating witnesses or suspects – in fact, she's none too smooth in that area – nor that she has a keen eye for the telling detail. On the contrary, something not quite right about the evidence nags at the corner of her eye throughout this mystery, and it takes nothing particularly dramatic to bring it into focus for her. Nevertheless she plods along, getting imperceptibly closer to the solution while her 12-year-old son Abe and his goofball friend Dewey carry on a squirm-worthy side investigation of their own.

The dialogue and the plotting suffer from a bit of repetitiveness, covering some of the same ground multiple times. Nevertheless, this book keeps the reader interested by mixing a bit of light romance – a maverick detective for Leah and a nice boy for her daughter Carry – and by alternating the third-person passages mostly from Leah's point of view with Abe's hilarious first-person narrative. His "You idiot" relationship with his best friend and all their ridiculous conversations, the way they play and their innocent approach to more serious pursuits, draw you in with warmth and weirdness and light-hearted nostalgia for a time when Beetlejuice was playing in theaters and phones had cords connecting them to the wall. It isn't all G-rated innocence, though. Between Abe and Dewey's debates about tarot reading, sword fighting and Dungeons & Dragons, there are hints of danger to them that will keep you on edge. And the crimes Leah is trying to solve are really quite disturbing, drawing her into a none-too-family-friendly side of Alvin and leading to an armed confrontation with the killer.

This is the third of four "Detective Leah Teal" novels by a Canadian author, which is surprising given his ear and eye for rural Alabama detail. The other titles in the series are Dream with Little Angels, Close to the Broken Hearted and Sticks and Stones. His other works include the serialized novel The Rose Garden Arena Incident. His standalone novels include Dolls – about a girl who discovers she has the power to hurt real people by messing with paper dolls that resemble them – and Darkstone: The Perfection of Wisdom – about a Buddhist monk who moonlights as a superhero.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

John J. Hammerlink and the Really Big Think

John J. Hammerlink and the Really Big Think
by Bette Slater Seres
Recommended Ages: 5-9

John J. is a rambunctious little kid who keeps getting into mild trouble, like when he sticks a fuzzy caterpillar up his nose or splashes in a mud puddle. His mom keeps telling him he needs to think, but he doesn't understand what that means. So John asks members of his family, and each of them gives him a small piece of the puzzle – opening his mind to the facts, asking himself questions and deciding which answer works best. He soon gets an opportunity to put his newfound thinking skills to the test when he notices something off about the home of the older lady next door. Suddenly, John J. is a hero because of his newfound thinking skills.

This is a nice, small kid-friendly introduction to the thinking process, based in a very simple way on Bloom's taxonomy of learning objectives (knowledge, analysis, evaluation). Though no particular illustrator is credited, the pictures add a certain charm. I especially got a kick out of the two-page spread of John J. splashing in the mud puddle. He's a lovable little kid, and the friendliness and gentle humor of the book may make it really useful in an elementary school classroom.

Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book when I interviewed the author for a newspaper story. Bette Seres is a first-time author and retired educator from Iowa (with a summer home up by me in Minnesota – hence the interview) and she told me she's planning a sequel in which John J. uses his imagination. I hope it won't take her the 20 years she said it took to write this book!

A Small Zombie Problem

A Small Zombie Problem
by K.G. Campbell
Recommended Ages: 10+

August is a lonely little boy, living in a crumbling mansion in a swamp, where the only person he ever sees is his slightly loony Aunt Hydrangea. She still wears the tiara and sash from when she won the Chili Pepper Princess pageant many years ago, and has a morbid fear of butterflies. This makes August's rare skin condition, which attracts butterflies to him, rather inconvenient. He's a rather odd child, himself, making skeleton puppets in his attic bedroom and spying on the wild child whose houseboat is moored to their boat landing. Barricaded in an old ruin, the pair live on the sales of the last few remaining crates of the hot sauce that once made their family rich, before the fortune went. Then one day, August tentatively ventures outside and without meaning to, changes everything.

Next thing he knows, he's been invited to visit an aunt and a pair of cousins he didn't know he had. They're a fairly strange lot, too, but rich with it. His longing for friendship and a sense of belonging go a bit to his head, and by the time he comes home, he has agreed to hunt for a long-lost family heirloom that his newfound Aunt Orchid desperately wants. But it turns out that he has unknowingly found it already, and it's not just a pretty gemstone – it has the power to raise the dead. That explains why an undead little girl has started following August around like a lost puppy. Now he's worried that if he doesn't shake Claudette off somehow, his chance to belong with his well-to-do cousins will be ruined.

It's a quirky and funny little zombie story – with surprisingly little running and screaming, and absolutely no brains-eating – but it nevertheless puts August through quite a dilemma. He learns an heartbreakingly painful lesson, which will make your heart go out to him. Though he doesn't always come across as perfectly nice himself, you'll understand what he's going through and appreciate what he learns from it. August's world is weird and different and has a definite atmosphere, a sense of happening in a real place, and an emotional resonance that I think will stand out in young readers' minds. And it will leave you curious about what August and his pet zombie might do next.

This is the first book of the "Zombie Problems" trilogy, continuing in The Zombie Stone and, due to be released in January 2022, August of the Zombies. K.G. Campbell is an author-illustrator who also co-created the children's picture book Wee Sister Strange with Holly Grant, wrote and illustrated Lester's Dreadful Sweaters and illustrated Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses.

Turn Off the Lights

Turn Off the Lights
by Phillip Gwynne
Recommended Ages: 13+

Dom Silvagni of suburban Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, is a pretty good middle distance runner, a not very attentive student at his pricy boys' prep, and terrible at telling the girl he likes that he likes her. But that's old news. Lately – like, since his 15th birthday – he's secretly become an errand-boy for a secretive criminal organization called The Debt. He doesn't know who they are, where they are, or what they really want. He only knows that if he doesn't complete six tasks for them, they'll cut off his leg. It almost happens in this book – more or less as a reminder not to mess with them. They seemingly know everything he does, everywhere he goes, even what he's thinking. It's eerie. The poor kid can't trust anybody. And then he finds out that his second task is to make all the lights in the affluant suburb of Halcyon Grove go dark during Earth Hour, only a few days away.

Suddenly, Dom is a star student, organizing a class trip to a nuclear power plant. He also makes amazing progress as a hacker, thanks to a scary computer The Debt gave him. But making sure those lights go out is still a tall order, considering that his photo is on file with plant security, and he doesn't have a driving license, and he can't ask anybody to help him, and he can't let a group of ecoterrorists accomplish the same task even though he sympathizes with them up to a point. (That point being their willingness to run over a kid who gets in their way.) So, he's actually got to sabotage the other group while at the same time committing the impossible act of ecoterrorism himself, and get home in time to stop the neighborhood bully from taking advantage of the girl of his dreams.

Dom faces emotional conflicts galore. He starts to suspect that his father is up to something shady. He has to keep secrets from the girl he has feelings about, even though those very secrets are pushing her away. He feels responsible for the kid down the street even though he's more of a rival than a friend. He experiences betrayal, jealousy, humiliation, paranoia – though that's not really the word for it when they're really messing with you. He makes some poor decisions, particularly as a runner. And he pushes through all kinds of reasonable fear and hesitancy to tackle a secret-agent-sized assignment, even though he's just a kid. It's a thrill ride, all the more thrilling for how nearly it goes totally out of control. And as resourceful, reflective and downright tough as he is, Dom's the right kid for it.

This is "installment two" of The Debt, a six-book series by an Australian young adult and children's author that I found in an independent, local bookstore all the way up in Park Rapids, Minnesota, but that you can't buy at Amazon for less than like $50. Viva small business! Book 3 is Bring Back Cerberus.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Short Treks, Seasons 1-2

So, apparently Star Trek shorts have become a thing, and not just a fan-made thing but an actual, official, canonical, made-by-the-makers-of-Trek thing. Several of these shorts were included as DVD extras with Discovery Season 2 and Picard Season 1, and now a bunch of them have been released on their own DVD. And by DVD, in this case, I actually mean one disc. They're that short. Like, from 5 to maybe 15 minutes each.

The DVD actually doesn't include all 10 episodes of what the Powers That Be Trek designate as Seasons 1 and 2. It doesn't actually even say the word "season(s)" on it. It contains nine shorts, omitting the last Short Trek of S2, which (however) you can find on the Picard DVD: "Children of Mars." (That's the one where the mining droids go nuts and wipe out everyone on Mars.) Here is a quick listing of the shorts on the disc, observing that "Season 1" is the first four and the rest are "Season 2."
  • Runaway, in which Tilly befriends the Xahean stowaway, setting up the backstory for Po's return in the last two episodes of Discovery S2.
  • Calypso, set 1,000 years in the future, when Zora (apparently the name of the sentience that lives in Discovery's computer since the sphere data came on board) rescues a castaway and shares a Funny Face inspired romance with him. Guest stars are Aldis Hodge and Annabelle Wallis.
  • The Brighest Star, Saru's backstory, where he yearns for (and eventually gets) escape from his backwater home planet. This sets up backstory for the Disco S2 episode where Saru goes back to Kaminar and puts his hand on the Balance.
  • The Escape Artist, a side story featuring Harry Mudd, played by Rainn Wilson as in Discovery S1 and S2.
  • Q&A, set on the Enterprise as seen in Disco S2 and dramatizing Spock's first day on board as an ensign. It also showcases Rebecca Romijn as Capt. Pike's Number One.
  • The Trouble With Edward, which reveals that the tribbles became that galactic pest that we know and love because of the jackassery of one science officer, played by H. Jon Benjamin of Bob's Burgers and Archer. His captain, a Pike protégé, is played by Rosa Salazar, late of Alita: Battle Angel.
  • Ask Not, in which a cadet is given a test (cough) of Starfleet discipline when Capt. Pike is made her prisoner. Anson Mount delivers a rare, villainous performance as Pike.
  • The Girl Who Made the Stars, an animated short in which little girl Michael Burnham's daddy tells her a bedtime story about the first people in ancient Africa. Kenric Green, who is actually Sonequa Martin-Green's husband, plays her dad.
  • Ephraim and Dot, another animated short in which a "Dot" maintenance robot (as seen in Disco S3) engages in Tom & Jerry-style antics with a momma tardigrade on the Original Series Enterprise. Besides dropping teasing references to (and archival audio from) a bunch of OG Trek episodes, it also features a framing narration by Kirk Thatcher, who (for what it's worth) played "punk on the bus" in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Anyway, this review will end up running longer than one of these shorts unless I move directly to Three Shorts That Made It For Me. It's a tough choice, but here it is: (1) The Escape Artist, a hilarious installment in the antiheroic misadventures of Harcourt Fenton Mudd. (2) Q&A, which itches the spot that wants to see more about the upcoming Strange New Worlds series. (3) The Trouble with Edward, which is, again, hilarious. It's great to see Star Trek take itself a bit less seriously once in a while, eh? It'll also be interesting to see if they continue supplying us with these shorts, which are (at very least) a nice way to tide fans over until another plop in the (up to now) slow drip of Trek content.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Catch the Zolt

Catch the Zolt
by Phillip Gwynne
Recommended Ages: 13+

Until Dom Silvagni turned 15, he was just a privileged kid living in a rich suburb of Gold Coast City in Queensland, Australia. His only worries were training as a middle distance runner, crushing on homeschooled neighbor girl Imogen, whose mother won't let her out of her sight, and not getting punched in the gut by the local golden boy, Tristan, whose parents somehow don't see what he really is. On his birthday, Dom learns that the men in his family have a deep, dark secret – a debt to an organization so terrifying that it is never spoken of, and if you have to speak of it, the name to call it is The Debt. Because of this debt, Dom will have to complete six tasks assigned by The Debt and if he fails, they'll take a pound of flesh. Literally.

At first, Dom is just unnerved by the idea of The Debt, which manifests itself to him as a seemingly all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent force that won't brook even the tiniest rebellion against its rules. Rules like: You don't tell anybody about it. You don't ask for anybody's help. And you don't even think about going to the police. It only takes one disturbing lesson to drive that home for him. So when The Debt assigns him something north of impossible but south of ridiculous as his first task, Dom doesn't laugh. He can't afford to.

His task: to catch a teenage cat burglar, adrenaline junkie, escape artist and social media sensation named Otto Zolton-Bander, who has already been caught by one of Australia's most ruthless private detectives – then somehow escaped. The Zolt has eluded the cops, crashed-landed four private planes and attracted a following of almost 1.5 million fans. To catch him, Dom will have to risk blowing up a relationship that he cares about (with Imogen) and cultivating one that he doesn't (with Tristan). He'll also find himself mixing it up with armed psychopaths, committing a midnight breakin in a bad neighborhood, running a footrace against junkyard dog mean competitors, cruising into danger in fancy cars, boats and aircraft, and questioning and being questioned by dangerous people at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum.

Despite being only a teenager, Dom quickly develops the resourcefulness and insight to move around freely in an adult-sized world full of dangers that don't care how old you are, and to make keen observations that more mature and book-smart people missed. His adventure is a little bit like a James Bond spy caper and, again, a little like a hardboiled detective story, with practically every scene confronting him with a different surprise, a different clue, a perilous encounter from a different quarter. And he manages it all without really knowing whose interest he's serving and what they really want. And if this is only his first task, just ask yourself where the next five tasks will take him and whether he'll have what it takes to accomplish them. Then see if you can rest until you get hold of the next book in the series.

This is the first installment of "The Debt," whose further titles include Turn Off the Lights, Bring Back Cerberus, Fetch the Treasure Hunter, Yamashita's Gold and Take a Life. For some reason I'm afraid to investigate for fear of how deep the rabbit hole goes, Amazon will only sell "new" copies of this book at usurious prices and Fantastic Fiction doesn't list this series among its author's works. Nevertheless, I take it that Gwynne is an Australian author, known for such young adult titles as Deadly, Unna? and Nukkin Ya and Jetty Rats and Swerve, as well as several children's picture books. And I can verify that all six books in this series exist, because I've seen them at a local bookstore – though, when I've bought them all, they might be gone for good. So, hurry and get them, mate!

Jungle Cruise

I took myself out to this movie last night, and I had a good time. It was derivative fun, but I emphasize fun. It's all about what you derive it from, I guess. The movie, starring Dwayne Johnson (no longer sticking "The Rock" between his names), Emily Blunt, yadda yadda, and Paul Giamatti, is based on a Disney ride (I think), and if that makes you think of Pirates of the Caribbean, I won't stop you. (To be fair, Pirates was based on a live show at a Vegas casino, wasn't it?)

And anyway, where Pirates has undead, like, pirates, Jungle Cruise has undead conquistadores. It's also got a fair bit of similarity to the classic Indiana Jones movies, all pureed together in a probably celluloid-free blender, what with imposing ancient ruins concealed behind puzzles, booby traps and curses, and a maguffin that can only be found when a certain moon is shining through a certain hole in the roof, and a bunch of Krauts who are auch after it, and a score by James Newton Howard that sounds exactly like something John Williams would have written for a Spielberg swashbuckler.

Carrying on with the parallelism, its protagonists include a beautiful, tough, pants-wearing female (in this case, her pants-wearing is frequently commented on); a ruggedly solitary, somewhat (in this case, very) disreputable treasure seeker with whom said female reluctantly develops a mutual attraction; an (in this case, not very) ambiguously gay, upper-class sidekick; a ridiculously tame and intelligent wild animal; and a sympathetic native with a commanding presence.

The hero girl in this flick is at least equally the hero with the guy, though; she does as much saving of him as he of her. Emily Blunt is the Indy type, and who or what Dwayne Johnson's character is, actually comes as a surprise. Other than that, there's non-stop danger, action, laughs, romance and eyeball candy, all swirled together in a big, loud, scenic parfait, or whatever the Portuguese word is. I heartily endorse it to anyone who was reluctant to go in for what looks, at first glance, like another Jumanji movie. Unoriginal in all the good ways, it boasts a good period look, fun character interplay, weird villains, spiffy Amazon rain forest scenery, and a surprisingly effective play for more sentimental emotions without ever letting up for very long on the adrenaline supply.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The good guys getting away from the German submarine(!) in the port town, with plenty of property destruction and a very exasperated Paul Giamatti along the shore. (2) One of the weird bad guys boasting that he's delicious. (3) How Blunt's character finds out who Johnson's character really is. You gotta see it for yourself.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Discovery, Season 3

In its third season, from October 2020 to January 2021, Star Trek: Discovery continued to anchor a rapidly proliferating Trek franchise, with first seasons of Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Trek: Short Treks already airing, new series Star Trek: Prodigy and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds in production, and at least one other spinoff – an as-yet untitled series focusing on former Terran Emperor Philippa Georgiou – apparently being developed. Not to mention on-and-off rumors of various Star Trek feature films being (at least nearly) greenlit, then canceled, one after another; the latest buzz has it that a fourth Kelvan Universe flick might be happening. And now, don't you know, Discovery has a fourth season in production. As I said in a previous post, it's a fine time to be a Star Trek fan.

I'll say this for Discovery, too: Its later seasons continue to improve on the hot mess of Season 1. Maybe I'm just getting used to it. All right, one might argue that the best parts of Season 2 departed to spin off into Strange New Worlds, and I'm not sure I'd call Season 3 a definite improvement on Season 2. But it's still a stronger series than it was at the outset, which is a good direction for a Trek series to go. And let's face it, other Trek shows have struggled during their early seaons (Next Generation, anyone?). Still, there are moments in Disco S3 that make me want to grab somebody by the shoulders and shake them. Not the cast or the visual effects people or any of the production and postproduction crew; they did an awesome job bringing a visually brilliant and well-acted show to life. I'm speaking more of the writers and producers who, despite giving us many vividly written scenes and strongly marked characters, nevertheless blundered with painful regularity in this year of the show.

For example, there are several situations in which everyone overlooks an obvious solution to a tragic problem. For just one example, in the episode "Die Trying" there's a Barzan guy (the same species as Enterprise security officer Nhan, who stayed with the Discovery at the end of S2 only to get written off five episodes into S3). The guy refuses to leave the spacefaring seed vault that carries the dead bodies of his wife and kids, even though Dr. Culber insists that he'll die within days if he doesn't receive medical treatment. The episode's tragic solution: Respect the guy's culture, let him stay with his family and die, and since he's going to die, say goodbye to Nhan, who elects to give up her career to watch seeds hibernate. Obvious alternatives that nobody in the story even considered: (1) Beam the Barzan guy's dead family to the Discovery so he can be with them while receiving lifesaving medical treatment. (2) Beam the medical supplies to the seed sheep and treat him there, then leave. (3) Aw heck, just bring the seed ship on board the Discovery. It looks like there'd be room for it somewhere.

It's a little thing, but there are several other little things like it, that leave me with a sense of frustration with the writers who dramatized a problem with multiple obvious solutions that weren't even discussed. Shades of season 2's tragic-death-of-an-admiral-when-no-sacrifice-of-life-was-remotely-necessary. The only explanation I can dream up is that the writers are uncomfortably aware that the transporters, like the eagles in The Lord of the Rings and the Time Turner in Harry Potter, could solve everything.

Another thing that frustrates me about the writing of this series is its kowtowing to the bleeding-edge gender politics of this exact moment in history. I foresee that it's going to age about as gracefully as the hippie episode of Original Trek. Like several other sci-fi/fantasy series of recent years, its scenes showcasing trans and non-binary characters come across like an incongruous element. One moment we're watching a futuristic, science fiction epic, and the next moment we're being receiving societal engineering indoctrination in the form of a present-day afterschool special, all penned and reviewed by the ideological sensors most intimately concerned with the issue. (The show's writers admittedly accepted guidance from GLAAD for those scenes.) And truly, unless your universe revolves around that issue, it's boring, irrelevant and pointless. It's interesting to watch strange, atypical and even sexually non-standard characters participating in a real and compelling story, without anyone even commenting on it (remember DS9's "Rejoined"?) but it rather lets the air out of the room when one of them pauses to declare their personal pronouns. And, as the series finale dramatizes, that's not a good thing in outer space.

A third and most systemically frustrating failing of this series – which is actually acknowledged in this season's dialogue – is the unbelievable portrayal of main character Michael Burnham as a promising officer when she is so chronically allergic to following orders. Over and over, her noncompliance, insubordination and acts of downright mutiny put other individuals, the ship and (at times) the galaxy in grave danger, and even though other people notice, she herself never learns from these errors. If anything, she's emboldened to continue disobeying orders when the discipline she endures gets less harsh every time. And yet, in the midst of it all, people tell her she's "the hope" and the one person Discovery couldn't do without – the best person at bringing the best out of people, etc. In a more realistic version of Starfleet/the Federation, her crisis of faith that she belongs there (climaxing in the scene where her own mother ruthlessly draws the truth out of her) would have ended differently. In fact, the one flaw of that brilliant scene is how lightly it lets Burnham off.

To the credit of the series, it continues to develop in a more episodic direction, albeit with a serialized story thread running through the background. Each episode definitely tells its own story, with one focusing on the Trill, one on the post-Reunification Vulcans and Romulans, etc. As interesting as an experiment in serialized storytelling can be (cf. multiple examples in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), drawbacks include a lack of distinction between specific episodes, the difficulty of following the storyline if you've missed one or more segments, and (most relevant to Discovery) the risk that the large-scale story will prove to be a dud, making the entire multi-episode arc pointless.

I went into watching this season already aware, thanks to internet buzz, that this season is a case in point, the third point that is. I now see where that buzz is coming from. One of the things that hurts this season is that the big mystery that drives it all forward, leads to an underwhelming revelation. If anything saves it, it's the "other" serialized storyline – dealing with the Emerald Chain crime syndicate that has turned the Federation into a bad neighborhood by the late-middle 32nd century. The other saving grace, as I said, is the more episodic approach that tightens the focus on more discrete units of storytelling and character development.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. I'm telling you what I think of it first, and I haven't really said what it is. Disco S3 follows up on the previous year's big arc regarding the sentient sphere whose 100,000-year record of the universe was uploaded into Discovery's computer, and the threat of Control – an artificial intelligence used by the blackest of Starfleet's black ops organizations, Section 31, to predict threats to the United Federation of Planets. In order to keep Control and the sphere data from merging into an unstoppable force that would wipe out all organic life in the galaxy, the Discovery had to use a time crystal (don't ask) and a Red Angel suit (not taking questions) to create a wormhole 930 years into the future, where for some reason not entirely clear to me, this danger would be averted.

But Burnham, piloting the suit, arrived a year ahead of the rest of the Discoveries. She spends that year surviving by doing courier work in a dystopian era in which the Federation and Starfleet have been dispersed by a mysterious disaster called the Burn, which blew up every vessel traveling at warp all at one instant, about 150 years earlier. She also meets a new dude who calls himself Cleveland Booker, or just Book, played by David Ajala, who scores a mention in the opening credits but only in the episodes in which he appears. (The same goes for Michelle Yeoh as bizarro-Philippa Georgiou and Rachel Ancheril as Nhan, both of whom are written off the show during this season.) The cat on his shoulder is Grudge, his "queen," played by a pair of Maine coons named Leeu and Durban.

New recurring cast members include Blu del Barrio as Adira, a young human joined to a Trill symbiont; Ian Alexander as her (sorry, their) late, Trill boyfriend Gray, who continues to appear to her; Oded Fehr of "The Mummy" as Starfleet Admiral Vance; Noah Averbach-Katz, the husband of Mary "Tilly" Wiseman, as the maimed Andorian named Ryn; David Cronenberg, the director of Scanners, The Fly, Crash and Eastern Promises, as the old guy with glasses who studies Georgiou with fascination; Vanessa Jackson as Starfleet Security Chief Willa; Adil Husain as Sahil, the first representative of the Federation Burnham meets upon arrival in the future; and Janet Kidder as Orion syndicate leader Osyraa. Other well-known guests include Jake Weber, who played Patricia Arquette's husband on Medium; Christopher Heyerdahl of Sanctuary and Stargate: Atlantis; Kenneth Welsh of Twin Peaks; Jake Epstein of Degrassi: The Next Generation; comedian Bill Irwin, late of Sesame Street and recurring roles on CSI and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit; Kenneth Mitchell, who previously played several Klingon characters on the show, in a role tailored to his advancing ALS diagnosis; and Paul Guilfoyle, best known as Lt. Brass on CSI. It also features archive footage of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from his guest appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Because, once again, the show is more episodic than the first season, I might bend a little and go back to my old habit of naming and briefly describing each episode. They are:
  • That Hope Is You, Part 1, an unusual instance of the words "Part 1" in a Trek episode title in that "Part 2" bookends the season rather than following immediately. It's the one in which Burnham lands in the 32nd century, meets Book and begins her search for the Discovery and the cause of the Burn.
  • Far from Home, in which the Discoveries arrive on a planet haunted by parasitic ice and a gangster who terrorizes the local mining colony.
  • People of Earth, in which a visit to the former capital of the Federation reveals that the planet is no longer a member, and has its own problems now.
  • Forget Me Not, in which the Discoveries take Adira to Trill, in the hope that she can recover her symbiont's previous hosts' memories and lead them to Starfleet.
  • Die Trying, in which the Discoveries finally find what's left of Starfleet, but have to prove themselves before they're welcomed into the fold.
  • Scavengers, in which Burnham goes AWOL to save Book from a junk planet, where he has found a black box recorder that could help solve the mystery of the Burn.
  • Unification III, another out-of-left-field title tying it to the Next Generation two-parter in which Spock (played at the time by Nimoy) tried to bring the Vulcans and Romulans back together as a single species. Most of a thousand years later, the society of the planet formerly known as Vulcan (now Ni'Var) is still in a delicate balance, as Burnham learns when she appeals for scientific cooperation with her Burn investigation.
  • The Sanctuary, in which Burnham and Book visit the latter's home planet and liberate it from Osyraa.
  • Terra Firma, Parts 1 and 2: Georgiou's swan song from this series, apparently meant to boost the development of her own series, this one has her go through a certain temporo-dimensional gateway (cough) in search of a cure for a temporo-dimensional flu that's killing her. She then gets to relive her darkest moments as the mirror universe's Terran Emperor, and see if she can't change them based on what she has learned in the prime universe.
  • Su'Kal reveals that a Kelpien brat caused the Burn, and while the Discoveries are coming to grips with this, Osyraa steals their ship.
  • There Is a Tide and That Hope Is You, Part 2, effectively a two-parter in which Burnham, Book and friends liberate the Discovery from Osyraa and work out how to restore the Federation to something more like its pre-Burn glory.
The last three episodes lose some of that episodic feel, reverting to a more serialized format like in Season 1, where it becomes a bit difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins – although an alert viewer will note that Su'Kal focuses mainly on the away team on the dilithium planet, "There Is a Tide" mostly on the Discovery side of things with Book's ship in pursuit, and the season finale on tying up both storylines.

And now it's time to single out the Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) Unification III, which not only delivers a knock-out look at what has become of one of the founding member worlds of the Federation and one of its longest-standing enemies, but also reunites Burnham with her mom and re-introduces the Qowat Milat order of "absolute candor" (previously seen on Picard) in a single, brilliant gesture of character building and top-shelf writing. May I also say, Ni'Var politics are just wicked. (2) Forget Me Not, which does its bit to remedy the franchise's sad neglect of the species of Jadzia and Ezri Dax, with all its fascinating story possibilities. (3) The Terra Firma two-parter, which among the DVD extras included a couple of deleted scenes that (unlike others on this set of DVDs) actually would have improved the episode, maybe in an extended version or perhaps one with a little less self-indulgent valediction for Georgiou at the end. Still, apart from that blemish, I think it's a pretty cool episode, with the part of Carl standing out, the character arc of Georgiou receiving satisfying treatment and the kick-ass Terran/mirror universe always (well, usually – cough Enterprise cough) fun to see.

On a more micro scale, Three Things That Made It For Me include seeing Saru (Doug Jones) out of his Kelpien makeup – though I'm worried that it comes at a cost of his character being written out of the show; seeing more of the Dots (the maintenance droids), particularly as they become identified with Zora (the sentient subroutine merging the Discovery's computer with the ancient sphere data) and the finale's solution, albeit rushed, to the problem that Paul Stamets can't continue to be the only humanoid interface with the mycelial network.

Other DVD extras worth seeing included a touching featurette on Kenneth Mitchell, talking about the special way Star Trek came through for him in his struggle with ALS, and another focusing on the "bridge crew" – which on this particular show are a bunch of solid but minor characters. They include, by the way, Emily Coutts as pilot Keyla Dettmer, Patrick Kwok-Choon as tactical officer Gen Rhys, Kenyan actress Oyin Oladejo as ops officer Joann "Owo" Owosekun, Ronnie Rowe Jr. as comms officer Ronald Altman Bryce and Sarah Mitich, who was cast both as cybernetically enhanced officer Airiam in Season 1 and her replacement, an otherwise unnamed Lt. Nilsson, from Season 2 on. Both characters womanned the bridge controls for the Discovery's spore drive system. As a bonus, the Terran two-parter also brought back Hannah Cheesman, who played Airiam for Season 2 (including the episode in which Airiam was killed), and Rekha Sharma, who was Capt. Lorca's security chief, Ellen Larkin, until the tardigrade pwned her in Season 1.

Overall, once again, I think it's a successful season, though the show still has problems. One of the biggest of them, I think, is that the most attractive part of the show came and went with Season 2 and is warping off into its own universe as Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Another part is that it's still hard to buy Burnham as being all that she's cracked up to be, given all the ways she has cracked up and continues to do so. Vulcan stoicism and logic-based pragmatism is supposed to be her thing, but it totally isn't. When someone reminds her, toward the end of Season 3, that she's a xenoanthropologist, she looks as shocked as you feel about it, considering that you've practically never seen her operating in that role. And again, with all her emo self-absorption and (at least) near-fatal tendency to disregard orders, her supporting cast's view of her as a born leader beggars belief – in much the same way Chris Pine's portrayal of Capt. James Kirk reduces the idea of Kirk as a great leader to the absurd. Fixing these issues in a 32nd Century Federation starting to heal from the (sorry) ridiculous scenario that blew it up in the 30th century, will be a tall order for Season 4. Perhaps we'll find that this show has run its course and it can fade away into subspace, leaving more room for (say) a Star Trek: Secion 31 series starring the asskicking Michelle Yeoh.