28 July 2012

Recent Reading

Teen Inc. by Stefan Petrucha

Jaiden Beale is the first child in US history to be adopted by a corporation, a PR stunt after his parents were killed by a faulty gas valve. 14 years later Jaiden has had a very odd upbringing and is trying to negotiate the tribulations of teenage life while being raised by a committee. His bedroom is a converted office in NECorp's headquarters and gets his breakfast from the cafeteria. Since attending public middle school he's manged to keep his strange background quiet, but his anonymity is threatened when he invites his pretty lab partner over to his 'house'. Jaiden soon has to confront the way his parent corporation operates and the dangerous people that work within it.

This book is interesting if very unlikely. Jaiden is portrayed as a normal teenage boy trying to negotiate an unusual situation. As with most teenage books it's written in first person* and the voice and thoughts of the main character are the reader's window to the world. There are various times when Jaiden does stupid things, but these are not surprising, though he has a tendency to repeat himself. The last third of the book has unexpected twists and the whole situation turns from teen sitcom to weird action film, with unlikely espionage and actual, serious danger changing the tone, but not the expected outcome. It was fun, but the action bits were pretty unrealistic. It's clear the author has an anti-corporate message, but if anything this didn't go as far as I'd expected it to. In the end the situation is improved but the status quo doesn't really change.

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Lennie (Lennon Walker) has just lost her older sister. Bailey, a healthy young woman attending drama college, died suddenly and now grief has filled her household. Lennie lives with her grandmother and uncle, her mother simply left when she was a baby, in a rather bohemian town in Northern California. Lennie is unable to come to terms with her sister's death and has surprising feelings for Bailey's boyfriend Toby. When she returns to high school she meets Joe, and soon falls for him, though her grief could destroy her happiness all over again.

I really liked this book. I wasn't sure if I would but despite the subject matter it was actually pretty life-affirming and romantic. The characters were all well written and believable, another first person book,* but one where other characters feel as authentic as the narrator. The grief of Lennie and her family is palpable, but understandable and not overplayed. The distraction and joy of Joe's presence is great and the relationship between Joe and Lennie is excellent, a great cure for the ridiculous pining and overly-complex love triangles that crop up in so much teenage fiction. Joe is a wonderful character, a great boyfriend for a teenage girl, but not idealised to the point of unbelievability, he has flaws but doesn't play games.
Each chapter is preceded by a picture of words scrawled into a wall, cut into a tree or written on rubbish, found around the town. These are the thoughts and poems that Lennie writes and hides to express her feelings about Bailey's death. They are nicely done and provide visual interest throughout the book, as well as allowing the reader to understand Lennie's feelings and her relationship with her sister without clogging the narrative sections.

* I think all the US teen books I read in the last couple of years are written in first person POV. Most of the UK ones are too, but I can think of exceptions. Has it always been this way and I only just noticed, or is it a new(ish) rule? I can think of several in diary format, but actually that seems to be less popular now than simply having the characters tell their story without a framing reference.
Of course it's possible I've just missed a whole swathe that are written in third person, but there's definitely a major trend for first person. Is it because that this lets readers connect to the character more and young people need/want that? Is it that young adults don't like third person so much, or is that just what the publishers think? I'm honestly not sure, would be interested in any insights people have on this.

I do suspect that this is why no one can remember the names of main characters when talking about books at Teenage Reading Group, because it's all 'I' and 'me' in the text. Both staff and teens regularly have glance at the blurb to remind ourselves.

26 July 2012

The Last Outpost

I'd like to thank Dave C. for his kindness in lending me his Next Gen DVDs, its certainly sped things up.

Episode: s1, ep 5
It's time to meet the Ferengi, an alien race with very different values to the Federation. If we learned anything from Code of Honour it's that other races are treated with respect and dignity, that certainly has nothing to do with how much they resemble humans... Oh, wait.

What Happens
The Enterprise is chasing a Ferengi ship that’s stolen an energy converter. The Federation hasn’t had direct contact with the Ferengi before and they don’t even know what they look like, though they’ve heard a lot about them. The Ferengi are compared to Yankee traders, which means they’re very mercantile, and it’s clear the Federation (or at least the bridge crew of the Enterprise) look down on this.
The Ferengi ship turns and fires, then the Enterprise is immobilised and the ship’s power is rapidly drained. Picard tries to surrender to the Ferengi, and the Ferengi try to surrender to the Enterprise; it’s clear that both ships are in the same predicament. The planet they’re near used to be part of a huge, advanced galactic empire that fell millennia ago. Both ships agree to a joint investigation of the planet.
The Enterprise away team is separated when they arrive on the planet, then they’re attacked and captured by Ferengis with energy whips. Meanwhile the Enterprise loses so much energy that life support systems start failing. The planet manifests a Guardian figure who tests the Federation and Ferengi away teams. The Ferengis loudly blame and accuse the humans while grovelling to the magical Guardian guy. The Guardian tests and approves of Riker’s mind, so everyone is saved.

Guest Star
This is retroactive, but it’s fitting that Armin Shimmerman plays one of the first Ferengi. His character unsurprisingly looks like a younger version of Quark from Deep Space Nine, presumably before he met Garak and learnt about tailoring.

Picard gets misty-eyed while talking about the French flag and seems to be moments away from saying something about liberté, égalité, fraternité, when Data interrupts him to talk about other flag colours.
When the Enterprise fails an escape attempt Picard swears in French.
I'm still waiting for the beard.

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle-management
Riker has to shoo some small children out of the lounge they aren't supposed to be in. William Riker: child-herder.
Riker leads the away team, finds his fellow crew members on the mysterious planet, fights the monkey-like Ferengi attacks, and then saves them all from destruction, with his brain. Less impressively he asks Geordie if he’s conscious, which is one of the stupidest questions you can ask a human.

Planet Of… Mysterious energy sucking and magical ancient tech.

The Prime Directive is a Harsh Mistress
It’s clear that the Ferengi see the Prime Directive as barbaric because it prohibits profitable enterprise. From a Ferengi point of view this makes a lot of sense.

No Magic Here
The Guardian of the planet appears as a floaty face in the sky, then as a robed and hooded man. He might as well be the Keeper of the Bridge of Death, or something. Like most mystic guardians he’s very powerful. He claims he could have destroyed both ships in orbit, and was clearly able to monitor their activities while sucking their power. He can also see into the minds of those on the planet as he tests and judges them.
At no point does he ask anyone about the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow.

Future Prejudice
From Picard’s throwaway comment in ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ it’s clear that the Ferengi aren’t well thought of, even before this contact.
Worf calls them pygmy cretins, which is harsh.
Riker decides that the Ferengi are like humans used to be and, with their current tech level, this makes them dangerous. He also very patronisingly says that they must be given the chance to learn. So basically it’s not that Ferengi are different, they’re just plain backwards.

Staff Meetings: 2
1. Bridge crew go to the lounge to discuss how they can get away from or combat the Ferengi. Surrender is decided as the best option.
2. Bridge crew got to the lounge  to discuss the planet, how it is holding them, and what they should do about it.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?
The Enterprise loses so much power so fast that life support is barely functional and families huddle together with blankets to keep warm. Dr Crusher tells Picard she almost gave Wesley a sedative so he can slip away peacefully. This is grim stuff, and clearly space is no place for children. Yet it seems that Star Fleet officers choose to enforce this dangerous lifestyle on their kids, rather than having them live in the utopian safety of the Federation planets.

The End
The Enterprise and Ferengi ship are allowed to leave, the Enterprise gets the stolen goods back. Of course everyone on the Enterprise is too tired to be happy about this because they’re still sleepy from the oxygen deprivation. Riker decides to cheer everyone up by sending the Ferengi some Chinese finger traps as a hilarious practical joke (you see how the Federation are much more advanced).

21 July 2012

Behind the scenes at the musuem

Last week I was off work and had several very enjoyable days doing things and being social.

On Friday I joined some of my fellow volunteers on a behind the scenes tour of the new gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. As the gallery isn't due to open until October there was still much work going on, and the artefacts had not yet been put in position.
The gallery is a long space that tracks the history of Bimingham, the 2nd largest city in the UK and one which is not generally considered to have that much history (for a British city, anyway). I volunteer at a Medieval site, so I know this assumption is incorrect and hopefully this interesting new gallery will show that to people.

One of the most impressive things we saw was a beautifully detailed model of Medieval Birmingham. It was a wonder to behold, and should impress those who like model making. Even those who aren't interested in history will be drawn in by the detail. It wasn't fully functioning when I saw it, it'll be partly interactive and have sound.

The rest of the gallery looked impressive with plenty of interactive things that children and adults can try and at least one other impressive (but very different) model. The gallery proceeds chronologically, with themes running through each time period.

It should be a great addition to the museum and to general understanding of Birmingham history.

19 July 2012

Code of Honour

Episode: s1, ep4

I was expecting this episode to be about the Klingons, or Worf (who hasn’t had much to do so far). Frankly I wish it had been, instead there's a possible discussion about what is 'civilised' that doesn't seem to draw any conclusions.

What Happens
The Enterprise makes diplomatic contact with a less-advanced, very human-like people in order to get an urgently needed vaccine. They meet with Lutan, who beams aboard with his retinue using their own transporters (so they’re not that unadvanced then). After being amazed by a female Security Chief and seeing a holodeck combat drill Lutan kidnaps Lt. Yar.
Picard has to tread carefully, despite the kidnapping, because they need good diplomatic relations in order to get the vaccine. At a very polite meeting Lutan announces his intention to make Tasha his ‘first one’. His current first one, Yareena, is not happy about this and challenges Tasha to single combat, to the death!
Tasha accepts the challenge (for some reason) and the Enterprise crew try to find a way out of the situation. As Tasha strikes the killing blow both women are beamed aboard the Enterprise where Dr Crusher saves Yareena. Lutan must concede that Yareena is no longer his first one, but because she isn’t dead her land can pass to the man of her choosing (his assistant who actually cared for her). Lutan is demoted and the Enterprise can leave with the life saving vaccine.

Picard likes old stuff
After mentioning that Lutan and his people are similar to an ancient Earth culture 'we all admire' (See Planet Of…) Picard gives him an antique Chinese horse statue. I don’t think these guys are based on the Chinese however.
Data refers to French as an obscure language, leading to an immediate, grumpy rebuke from Picard. He points out that for centuries the French language was a sign of civilisation on Earth. Of course he sounds more English than I do (for those who don’t know/haven’t met me, I’m from England). I’m not sure what the state of France is if the names (and pride) survive but the language is obscure.

The Boy
Beverly persuades Picard to let Wesley on the bridge. Picard not only gruffly agrees but tells Wesley to sit with Geordie, Geordie is not impressed, he’s not a babysitter. I guess Beverly has told Picard:
a) that Wesley associates him with his father’s death.
b) that Wesley has few/no friends among the other children.
c) both of the above.
Later Riker lets Wesley on the bridge without a thought. Riker is more comfortable with children than Picard and probably realises Wesley needs some positive reinforcement or something. When Picard returns he is annoyed to see Wesley manning a station, but Riker says he asked Wesley to help. Picard gruffly says Wesley can come back again.
If the kid wants to play at operating a star ship why don’t they run a holodeck programme for him? I can’t imagine that untrained children are supposed to push buttons that actually do stuff, surely there’s a regulation somewhere? I can't decide if he's getting special treatment because his mum is the Chief Medical Officer or because his family are/were friends with the Captain. Either way, I'm getting the horrible feeling that he's actually meant to be a main character.

Planet Of… Middle Eastern Stereotypes
The actors largely seem to be Black, but the influences in costume and custom are mostly Middle Eastern -though there may be some African stereotypes in the mix for good measure. 
There are turbans, rituals, misogyny, formal customs, heavy eye makeup and a strong code of honour.
The kidnapping of a woman (by a lusty foreigner, no less) is a narrative convention that’s been at the heart of fictional East vs West relations since before Helen of Troy.
Lutan doesn’t actually say he wants her for his wife, but… well yeah, that.
Awkward Moment
Data tries to tell jokes to Geordie. Knowing what is coming, Geordie tries to escape but Data doesn’t let him. 
Data has learned (and presumably told his victims) over 600 jokes. 

The Prime Directive is a Harsh Mistress
Despite having greater technological and weapons capabilities the Prime Directive means Picard has to dance to the tune of kidnapper Lutan and the customs of his people. Otherwise the Enterprise could beam Lt. Yar out and an away team could seize the vaccine that will save millions of lives.

Staff Meetings: 2
1. Diplomatic meeting between Picard & Lutan and staff.
2. Picard & Dr Crusher discuss the desperate need for vaccine, and whether Wesley can have special treatment and go on the bridge.

The End
All ends reasonably happily, with Lutan put in his place and the vaccine secured. Lutan's former assistant (now the boss)points out that the Federation may have advanced tech but they are not as civilised. This seems like a very subjective point.

13 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

I saw the Amazing Spider-Man the other day, it was pretty good and certainly improved on the previous films.
I didn't nurture high expectations for this film as I don't think it's strictly necessary. I can understand the desire to do something different with Spider-man, use fresh cast and crew, but I don't think it needed to be rebooted at this point (even taking into account how silly Spider-man 3 was). Then again I guess the studio needed to keep a hold of the license.
It was a fun superhero film, which was all it needed to be.

I'm not going to spoil the plot or give detailed descriptions of scenes, but I will mention stuff that happens. It's up to you how pure you want to be if you haven't seen the film yet.

Not as angsty as this picture looks.

Good stuff
Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, even though he didn't actually say the full slogan and some of the dialogue he was given was a bit schmaltzy and unlikely given the context. However we love Martin Sheen.

Andrew Garfield had the right kind of gangly physicality that I didn't realise Spider-man needed until now. Also he was far more authentic and likeable than the previous version of Spider-man who was mostly a little bit sad (unless that's just Tobey Maguire). In fact there was refreshingly little angst.

Gwen liking Peter first and never actually meeting 'Spider-man' was a good move. I was glad there were none of the stupid alter-ego mix ups that superhero films (and TV shows) tend to indulge in, usually at the expense of the female character.
Admittedly I thought that the relationship felt underdeveloped, I never actually saw them forming a bond (I'm told this might have happened in deleted scenes, but don't know for sure). By halfway through the film they're supposed to have strong feelings for each other, but it all feels a bit rushed and artificial. Then again I don't expect the romances in superhero films to feel realistic, so it's not a major quibble.

The webslinging visual FX were great. I only saw it in 2D because I personally have difficulty seeing 3D. However even in 2D some of the web slinging was very well-done, and used different techniques to the earlier films.

The manufactured webslingers were good (it was a gripe that Marvel Boy had about the Raimi films) and using a web as a web was a wonderfully simple yet new idea.

The mystery surrounding the disapearance of Peter's parents was interesting, it's something that the comics apparently handled badly (there were clones, or maybe robots) and never dealt with again. It's clear that this film is setting up for sequels with some ongoing plot arcs and background threads, which will hopefully provide more depth and make the sequels worthwhile. Speaking of which...

Norman Osbourne is never seen and takes no action, but he is mentioned as someone in the background. My spidey senses detect foreshadowing.

No one stands like that, no one.

The following bit is likely to make more sense if you've already seen the film.

Things I thought while watching
I was so tempted to start singing Incy Wincy Spider at one point.

In OsCorp where the shadows are. Because that tower just needs a big flaming eye on top.

Of course Spider-man has a backpack, it's not like he has space for pockets in that outfit.

When the antagonist is breaking into the lab it sounds as though he has stepped on a piano, that was there for no reason. Then it happened again and I realised it was meant to be sound FX.

There was one moment when I was suddenly blindsided by the surrealness of what I was watching. This hasn't happened to me in a superhero film before, though it's a reaction that makes sense.
Spidey is talking to a particular police officer, who is holding him at gunpoint. The entire scene looks like a serious cop movie, except for the guy bent into an unnaturaslistic crouching pose wearing red and blue spandex. Just for a second Spider-man looked like a guy from a panto or a contemporary ballet production who had walked onto the wrong set. I think this may be the problem with "realistic" superhero films, they can't really reconcile how strange superheroes tend to look.

12 July 2012

The Naked Now

Episode: s1, ep3
More interesting than the previous episode, the Naked Now is apparently trying to tell us something about temptation, but what we really learn is that precocious kids can get away with a hell of a lot.

What Happens
The nudist beach was less fun in winter
The Enterprise joins the research ship Tsiolkovsky to monitor a dying star. The other ship sends out strange messages before the entire crew dies in an apparent accident. The away team find the kind of mess normally associated with teenagers in US films who’ve thrown a party while their parents are out of town. Plus there are a load of naked frozen people.
On their return Dr Crusher checks the away team and confines Geordie to sickbay because he’s acting oddly and is surprisingly sweaty. However Geordie leaves, spreads his condition and soon most of the crew are too hot and acting intoxicated. A similar thing happened on Kirk’s Enterprise, but the cure used then doesn’t work this time.
Wesley has been recording the Captain’s voice in order to play at being a crewmember. He uses the recordings to trick senior staff and hijacks Engineering, where he pretends to be Captain while the crazy-drunk Engineers giggle and dismantle vital systems.
Meanwhile a piece of the collapsing star detaches and flies towards the Enterprise in the shape of a glowing rock. Picard, Riker, Dr Crusher and a blonde Engineer keep working to save the ship from destruction. Dr Crusher creates a working cure despite being infected herself. Wesley’s knowledge and quick-thinking eventually helps to save the day and everyone forgets that the trouble in Engineering was largely his fault.

Does Not Compute
Data has sex, I have no idea why. (See Awkward Moment)
I’m surprised he even knew what Tasha was getting at when she asked if he was ‘fully-functional’. Earlier in the episode he doesn’t understand the word ‘snootful’ after hearing it in context, and he was unable to guess what ‘snoop’ meant last episode. (Did his programmers miss out words beginning with ‘sn’? Were they distracted by all the sex programming?) This happens while Data is on duty, he ignores direct orders from Picard, and he knows Tasha has the intoxication infection. Since he doesn't have either libido or emotions I cannot fathom why he felt any need to ignore work for sex.
I’m not sure that it’s necessary to programme an android with sex skills, especially when you didn’t really programme it with other nuances of human interaction. It makes me suspicious of what Data is meant to be used for. 
I’m also confused about this from a character viewpoint. Data’s supposed to be slowly learning human interactions and social skills, yet when it comes to the most intimate human interaction he apparently doesn’t need to learn, he already has the necessary programming. It somehow feels like a huge cheat.

Data catches the intoxication infection, though presumably he doesn’t sweat. Picard seems to think that shouldn’t have happened and, funny though Brent Spiner’s pratfalls and facial expressions are, I have to agree. It seems like a massive design flaw.

The Boy
Wesley has been recording Picard’s voice and manipulating the recordings in order to more fully realise his personal fantasy of being a crewmember and receiving orders. Far from being ashamed of this stalkerish behaviour (which must be against regulations), he proudly shows what he’s done to Geordie. He also shows Geordie his science project. It isn’t actually explained why Wesley is showing his projects to his mother’s colleagues rather than being with children his own age, but I think it’s safe to assume the other kids don’t want to play with him.
It’s also safe to assume that Wesley has made some enemies in Engineering. Certainly blonde Engineer was very angry about being tricked and locked out of her own department. The crazy-drunk Engineers probably feel pretty stupid about the whole incident, first he tricked them, then he showed them up. I imagie they're feeling pretty resentful.
Worf is the voice of the audience at the end of the episode when he expresses shock that ‘the boy’ is given thanks. After imitating the Captain, giving fake orders and tricking senior staff into leaving their posts I personally think he should spend some time in the Brig.

Awkward Moment
Data and Tasha Yar have sex.
What? I don’t even…. Why? This makes no sense. (See Does Not Compute)
Tasha (who talks about her traumatic childhood*) says she wants gentleness, joy and love. She’s not likely to get those things from the only crewmember who doesn’t have emotions. Then again she's crazy-drunk, so presumably any crewmember would have done. I'd assume the main reason for sex with Data is lack of emotional entanglement. Data says he’s programmed in a ‘broad variety of pleasuring’, probably making him the galaxy’s best sex toy.
I'm not sure why or how the sight of her torso and heavily-gelled hair inflames Data's passions, since the whole point of Data is that he doesn't have passions. It's highly illogical.
The whole cringing scene is made worse by his creepy smile as she drags him into her bedroom. It’s not like he’s actually happy, he doesn’t have emotions. I guess he caught the drunk-crazy infection really quickly.
At the end of episode there's awkward eye contact between them on the bridge, then Tasha tells Data it never happened. Wise move, if only we hadn't had to see the awkward, nonsensical preliminary.
Given what little I know of the Original Series I can only assume that there was a strict sex-to-episodes ratio required in Star Trek and this was the writers making sure they met the quota.
Future Fashion
Troi has trousers now, presumably the aforementioned trouser shortage is almost at an end. I noticed some female crewmembers in the background still have miniskirts.

Tasha's seduction outfit consists of a pair of full-length sleeves with just enough fabric to barely cover her breasts. Any full-blooded crewmember would react and apparently it's so alluring that it even works on ones without blood.

Security Breach
For someone confined to sickbay Geordie is able to leave really easily - he takes off his badge, does that make him invisible? No one attempts to test Lt. Yar, who dragged him back to sickbay. Frankly the quarantine procedures are terrible; people spread the drunk-crazy all over the place. Given the speed of the infection I’m guessing that Enterprise crewmembers are touchy-feely drunks.
This starship is not a toy.

Why would you let an unescorted child wander around Engineering? Why would you leave a child to look after Engineering without checking with someone first? If the Captain’s orders don’t make sense I’m sure you’re allowed to ask for clarification. Also, where is everyone else in Engineering, was it really just those two crewmembers?

Death by Space Misadventure
The 80 people aboard the Tsiolkovsky were either blown (not sucked) out of an airlock, or else frozen naked in their quarters. Their families don’t even get their bodies back as the Tsiolkovsky is blown up to shield the Enterprise.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?
The Enterprise is just seconds away from being completely destroyed by a glowy sun rock. Every soul on board would have died, there was no evacuation attempt.
Almost everyone is basically drunk, does this include the children and the people looking after them?

The End
Picard lives up to his previous promise, this adventure was more interesting than the last. He also concludes that the crew should avoid temptation. I wonder if there will be a lesson like this after every mission?

* Security Chief Tasha Yar is strong and aggressive. She had a traumatic childhood that included abuse and possible sexual assault, she is a survivor. If only there were some way women could be strong and tough and good at fighting without surviving traumatic experiences.

9 July 2012

Recent Reading

Infernal Devices by K W Jeter

Enjoying a bit of steampunk as I do I thought it would be edifying to read one of the early examples of the subgenre. Who better to read than the writer who coined the term, little realising (as he says in the introduction of this volume) quite where it would lead.
Infernal Devices is the story of George Dower who has taken on his late father's watchmaking business. However it becomes apparent that Dower Senior was in fact a mechanical genius, creating all manner of advanced and impossible devices. George is dragged into the machinations of his father's former clients and admirers, and is soon exposed to the improper, seedy and dangerous underbelly of London society. Eventually travelling the length of the country, encountering thugs, madmen, fish-people and ladies of easy virtue along the way.
This is an adventure full of odd occurrences, comic characters, and miraculous devices. It is good fun to read. The narrative voice of George is full of character using antiquated but understandable language and it's good to see his limited, proper-Victorian viewpoint expanded and confounded. There were times when the devices of Dower Senior seemed a bit too unlikely, or the changing twists got a little confusing, but overall it's a good read for those who like adventures in Victoriana.

Firecracker by Sean Stewart

I read this because it's by one of the people behind the very interesting Cathy's Book series. This character-driven, dark, adult book very different sort of story, though I caught similarities in the writers 'voice'.
Will Kennedy has always been able to see dead people, ghosts. His cousin AJ used to call him Dead Kennedy, but she was killed in her 20s. As an adult Will's life is a series of low income jobs, a cheap apartment and spending every other Sunday with his biological daughter Megan. He gets a call from a distant cousin who's having a ghost problem, and discovers that the guy murdered the girl who's now haunting him. Will barely escapes from that night and over the next few weeks he faces the mess his life is in and must deal with years of pent up feeling, all the while being haunted by ghosts of his recent and distant past.
This book was not what I expected it to be. At first I was expecting a supernatural detective story, where Will would get out of his financial troubles by investigating ghosts for people, this happens a bit but is not the focus of the story. Instead it is all about Will himself, the choices he's made, the memories and decisions that haunt him and a vengeful ghost that tries to drive him to violence in order to destroy him. The reader is firmly in Will's head from the beginning and there are a lot of flashbacks, creating a very personal and intimate journey with the character.
The setting -urban Texas- is very well described in a grimy but loving way. This a Southern Gothic book, and the sense of place pervades every scene so that my recollections are full of heat and humidity, industrial sprawl and cheap housing. Will himself is left-wing and alternative, a minimum wage anarchist and punk fan, which is very different from the stereotypical idea of a Texan, yet he is so rooted in the environment that it's hard to imagine him elsewhere.

6 July 2012

Encounter at Farpoint

Episode: s1, ep1 & 2
This first, double-length episode is exposition-tastic and gets so slow at times that the antagonist literally shows up to nudge the plot along. We see that the set designers are very proud of their work with two separate look-how-shiny-the-bridge-is scenes. There is also a lot of dramatic music to tell us what we should be feeling. 
The episode is trying to do a lot of different things, and introduce a lot of characters, which is ambitious but also loooong.

What Happens
Captain Picard takes his new ship to investigate Farpoint station and collect the rest of the crew. On the way the Enterprise is attacked by a 90s screensaver* that turns out to be a very powerful entity called Q. He condemns humans for savagery whilst wearing a variety of historical costumes and entertaining hats. Picard boldly attempts to run away, when that fails he surrenders the ship (minus saucer-section). This is not a good start to the job.
Q takes Picard, Data, Troi & Tasha Yar to a primitive court and tyrannically tries them for humanity’s crimes. Picard speeches at him until he agrees that what they’re about to face will be a suitable test.
Meanwhile at Farpoint, Riker investigates why the station is so advanced when the people who made it aren’t. The Enterprise arrives, characters meet and yet more exposition is exposited. Q reappears and tells them to get on with it - he is now the voice of the audience.
Further investigations reveal that there is something rotten in Farpoint. A mysterious ship appears and attacks the planet, discussion ensues. An away team beams to the mystery ship and discovers it’s a lifeform. The ship-lifeform is a giant space jellyfish, trying to rescue its mate, which is the station. The Enterprise shoots the station with a sparkly beam of helpfulness. The station turns back into a space jellyfish and zooms away with its partner.

Guest Star
DeForest Kelley shows up in old-man-makeup as Admiral Bones. He identifies Data as the new Spock (in case we hadn’t guessed), though I do agree with his assessment of Vulcans as annoying.
He also tells Data to treat the Enterprise like a lady. I’ve never understood it when men say that about vehicles, speaking as a lady we have rather different requirements.

Riker: lover, fighter, middle-management
Picard and Riker’s first meeting involves no warmth and little eye-contact. Riker sees himself as the Captain’s aide and bodyguard. Picard sees Riker as a guy who can help him deal with children. Bachelor Picard is surprised he’s been assigned a ship with children -as we will see over the course of this blog series the only person more surprised by this is me. It’s possible that Picard’s inability to assume a genial Captain-Birdseye-like persona** is one of the reasons Riker grows a beard later.
Apparently Riker and Troi used to be an item, but since they maintain careful blank-face when they meet, we only have a voiceover and music to tell us this. Riker purposely avoids being alone with Troi when the away team splits up.

Does Not Compute
Riker meets Data in a holodeck jungle practicing whistling (as you do). Data demonstrates his superiority to humans, then says he’d give it up to be human, even though he’d just observed that 'prejudice is very human'. Apparently ill-feeling towards others based on their inherent attributes is what’s missing from Data’s life.
Riker calls Data Pinocchio, just in case we hadn’t figured that out.

Awkward Moment
When Riker meets the Crushers young Wesley says 2 truly excruciating things.
1. “If you’re wondering about Mom ... she’s not unfriendly. She’s just shy around men she doesn’t know.”
Woah! He both suggests his mother is a timid spinster, and rebukes her for not being ‘friendly’ enough to her new colleague. I’m surprised she doesn’t clip him round the ear.

2. Riker is obviously keen to hear how the Crushers know Captain Picard. Despite what he just said Beverley indicates that Wesley should answer this simple question.
“When I was little he bought my father’s body home to us.”
I’ve worked in libraries and I’ve worked in a swimming pool and I’ve heard children say some weird stuff. I’ve also heard children say some pretty worrying stuff. I’ve never heard that.
Wesley sounds like he should be speaking from a darkened corner. It’s clear he associates Picard with the death of his father, and is emotionally messed-up.
As well as being creepy it’s also kind of hilarious. I imagine Picard cradling the body of Pa Crusher in his arms and carrying it down the street to the Crusher residence.

No Magic Here
Farpoint station ‘almost magically’ creates what people want, including apples and patterned fabric. It’s like a really convenient replicator. Station Administrator Zorn rebukes the station for this, suggesting that the space jellyfish is a hospitable being, despite its captivity. Geordie says the space jellyfish convert energy to matter, so that’s all explained.
Q is ‘very advanced or very different’. He can alter his appearance and location at a whim, he can freeze/unfreeze people and he whisks 4 people away in space (and possibly time) to play out his created-but-real courtroom scenario. No one actually says magic, but let's face it, that's the best explanation.

Future Fashion
The Federation seems to be suffering a fabric shortage that requires most female crewmembers to wear miniskirts. Troi has only calf-length boots to cover her legs. Dr Crusher and Tasha Yar have clearly obtained trouser requisition forms. 
During the panicked scenes before the saucer separation I was amused to see a male crewmember wearing a miniskirt.

Future History
One of Q’s outfits is that of a soldier from a period when humanity controlled their armies with drugs. The raucous, primitive courtroom scene is set in 2079 during the ‘post-nuclear horror’. So I shouldn’t plan on doing anything nice in my 90s, then?

Future Prejudice
Picard mentions that the Ferengi consume their business partners. At this point we’ve never met the Ferengi, but clearly we’re supposed to think badly of them.
As someone who grew up in the countryside I feel I should point out that this is how racism spreads.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?
Whilst retreating from Q, Picard pushes the ship past safe speeds and there is definitely a Vulcan child on board before the saucer separation.

The End
The wonder of seeing a reunited pair of space jellyfish is tempered by Q’s ominous threat to return one day. 
Picard suggests that their future adventures will be even more interesting, which I guess is part apology and part encouragement to keep watching.

* To be fair in 1987 90s-looking stuff actually was futuristic. Of course now it looks like something from over a decade ago.

** I mean the Santa-of-the-Sea version of Captain Birdseye. Not the younger guy with the designer stubble.

4 July 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation

At Eastercon this year I was instructed to blog about Star Trek: The Next Generation by my friend Tom.
This was after a conversation in the bar, during which my thoughts about the series had Tom in stitches. Apparently I'm hilarious, and since that is exactly the kind of compliment that works on me, I'm now blogging about Next Gen.

My geekery doesn't come from a Trek background. I've barely seen 2 episodes of the original series. I remember Next Gen being on BBC2 at teatime as a kid, I watched bits. I prefer Deep Space Nine, with it's character development and politics I'm told it's the least Trek-like Trek series.

This isn't technically a rewatch as there are quite a few episodes I haven't seen. It's me writing what I think as I watch the episodes, with the intention of taking a humorous view.

I'm still going to blog about books, and other stuff that takes my fancy -I'm currently working on a post about scary dolls. I don't intend for this to become a Star Trek blog, but I'll try to write up an episode once a week (depending on my supply of borrowed DVDs).

So stay tuned for my thoughts on 'Encounter at Farpoint'.