25 May 2013

The Icarus Factor

Episode: s2, ep14

I don't really understand this episode title, I was expecting something to do with a sun. I like the way the B-plot panned out.

What Happens
The Enterprise goes to a starbase because of some kind of mechanical situation that needs a second opinion. The systems are being checked by inspectors. Geordi isn't happy about this affront to his professional pride, but no one seems to care how he feels.

Daddy Issues*
Picard tells Riker that he's been offered a promotion to Captain of the Ares, he's got 12 hours to think it over. A civilian attache is sent to brief him on the Ares dangerous mission, it's Riker's dad, Kyle. There are clearly issues as they haven't spoken in 15 years and Riker is very cold to his father.
It turns out Dr Pulaski and Kyle Riker used to be in a relationship, and she could've been Riker's stepmother. She has 3 ex-husbands and is friendly with all of them, but Kyle was never properly in touch with his feelings. Will is a bit freaked to see his father and the doctor have a history, he knew nothing about it, and he gets slightly stroppy at them.
Riker Senior hands Riker Junior the briefing on a disc. He didn't have to come, it was all a pretense to see his son again. Will rebuffs Kyle, probably because he's not the slightest bit apologetic about how bad a parent he is, then brings up Riker's dead mother.
When Troi meets Kyle she detects that he's proud of his son and jealous of him too. She suggests he should examine why he feels competitive towards his son. Kyle believes Will will take the Ares promotion because it's a dangerous mission, for a man who hasn't spoken to his son in 15 years Kyle is fairly confident about this opinion.
Will apologises to Pulaski for his earlier stroppiness. She explains that she would have married Kyle but his career came first. She also tells Will that his father suffered badly from survivor's guilt after a tragic mission.
The 2 Rikers argue and Kyle suggests they move the discussion to a martial arts ring, that's is the kind of father this guy is. They gear up and take part in Armoured Martial Arts Game, which involves sightless helmets, a ring and sticks. Kyle is really proud that he has never lost against Will, it turns out he was cheating for years so that he wouldn't get beaten by his own son. He's a bit of a bastard really. As they fight old issues come out, mostly stuff about Will's dead mother and Kyle's inability to communicate. Kyle tells Will he loves him and they hug briefly, but it's horribly tense.

How to cheer up a friend (a Wesley Crusher guide)
-You notice that your friend reacts angrily when you start up a conversation about how you both have dead fathers. You friend is an angry individual, but even so you suspect that something is odd about this interaction.
-You talk to other friends about it. One is unhelpfully distracted by work stuff and doesn't want to get involved. The other is an android who apparently doesn't understand or experience emotions, he agrees that something is up and suggests you take a scientific approach. You decide to discreetly observe your angry friend, even though your stealth skills are limited and he is a short-tempered warrior who is particularly irritable at the moment.
-Your android friend tries to cheer your angry friend up, but in the process tells your angry friend that you have all been discussing his behaviour. This does not help matters.
-You research into your friend's culture and discover that it's an important anniversary and he has none of his own people to share it with. You and the android arrange a traditional celebration for him. Various people are invited, though some have reservations about what such a gathering will be like.
-Your angry friend is brought to the celebration, which largely involves him being attacked by rows of holographic warriors yielding painsticks. It's very intense and kinda confusing but your friend is grateful and in all honesty that's the most important thing.
It's a very different sort of party.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard apologies to Riker for being so grumpy when they first met, then tells him about the promotion. Riker goes to Picard for advice several times during the episode. Picard tells Will how proud he is, but in a non-pushy way, unlike Kyle. Picard also frames Riker's choice, it's the difference between being first officer on a major ship or having command of a ship that he can make his own.

Klingon Warrior
Worf visits Riker in his quarters and requests that the Commander take him along to the Ares if he decides to go. It's not clear whether Worf wants to protect Riker or is looking for a post that will provide more combat opportunities. I can't help noticing that this request comes after Data tells Worf that other crew members are gossiping about him.
While I think that Worf not wanting to talk to Wesley about his dead father is perfectly acceptable and not strange, it's nice that various crew care about Worf and want to make a familial gesture for him. It's way less messed up than the Riker family, even including painsticks.

Counsellor Pointless
Riker says goodbye to Troi when he decides to take the promotion. She says that she can't read him at that moment. They both declare they are sad, she cries and they hug. They may be well-matched but they are not the most interesting couple.
Troi brings Worf to the holodeck for his ceremony. Worf is grumpy and Troi points out that the surprise was all Wesley's doing. He asks if she's coming in and she says no, in the tone of a person who wouldn't be seen dead at such a function.

Poor O'Brien
O'Brien is in 10 Forward with Riker when Kyle and Pulaski are reunited. He also faces sarcasm from Geordi over the engine checks that are going on in the background. It's the first time Geordi has made clear he's unhappy with the situation, but by that point everyone is helping Worf, so he missed his chance to be focus of the B-plot.
O'Brien agrees to go to Worf's surprise ceremony. Having seen what Klingon celebrations are like I'm surprised he later agrees to go to Worf's bachelor party on Deep Space 9.

Girl Talk
Pulaski and Troi discuss Worf's ceremony and the doctor makes a comment about humans being past 'barbaric display'. Troi points out that the Riker vs Riker grudge match would suggest that's not true, then says it's because they're men. It seems human males are unique because they have generational issues and never really grow up.** Then both women conclude that might be why they're attracted to them. Apparently men are like children and that's attractive, which isn't worrying at all.
This in no way passes the Bechdel test and also fails my own personal Gender isn't a Categorical Difference test (which was recently proved, by science). It seems like the kind of thing I'd hope people in the future would be less hung up about.

The End
Riker walks onto the bridge and asks Picard's permission to stay. The Captain grants it and Riker resumes his duties as though everything is normal. Picard asks why Riker wants to stay, in tones of mild interest. Riker says that the Enterprise is the best place for him to be.

* Daddy issues are everywhere in US TV and film. I assume it's a stock motivation as I refuse to believe that most of a continent of real people actually has daddy issues. I suspect it's just most of the entertainment industry.

** Human males, what do you reckon? This seems a bit unfair to me, but I can't speak from personal experience.

19 May 2013

Iron Man 3

I actually saw this a few weeks ago, but figured I'd leave my review until more people had the chance to see it (I wouldn't want to be accused of being topical). This post contains spoilers.

I really enjoyed Iron Man 3, it is definitely better than the second film, and possibly better than the first. The first film successfully launched the character into the mainstream consciousness, which is quite a feat so this one was building on that foundation. On the other hand the first was by necessity an origin story, and so was constrained by that, though it worked in such a way that those constraints weren't clear. As the first Marvel Studios film post-Avengers (Assembled *sigh*) it was going to be interesting to see how the hero would fit back into his own story after the expansion of the heroic universe. It was also necessary to prove that the Iron Man franchise could rise above Iron Man 2, which was only OK and clearly something of a placeholder. I'm pleased to report that Iron Man 3 managed to do these things and more, not only being better than 2 (which was my base expectation), but in fact being really good.

The story is more intimate, which makes sense as it could hardly be, or even try to be, more epic than  Avengers. Bringing the focus back on Tony Stark as a man, and how that man copes with being a hero, was a good choice. For a time Tony is forced (more or less) to rely on his own wits and must rebuild Iron Man the suit, in the process he realises that he truly is Iron Man. while I suspect he was not quite as cut off as the film would have us believe, I think that getting Tony away from his established workshop were he could constantly tinker (and the climax shows just how much tinkering he was doing) was good because it gave him focus and reminded him of his own abilities.

The interactions with the small-town child were pretty good. Adding children to a film that's not about family and has an adult main character can be iffy, as they easily come across as annoying to adult viewers. In this case the kid actually worked really well. Tony never talked down to him, and the kid didn't give Tony any quarter either, so their scenes seemed much more equal than such interactions usually are.

I liked that Tony was profoundly affected by the events of the Avengers film, but that the specific events were only mentioned briefly. What's important is the effect those events (most particularly almost dying after going through a wormhole/portal and seeing massed ranks of aliens*) had on him. I think the portrayal of Tony's panic attacks is well-handled and an excellent example of a sympathetic portrayal of mental health issues. Tony is not treated as lesser because this is happening to him, it is framed as an expected consequence of what he went through. Even a questioning child is simply curious and displays no judgement of him. The person who seems most annoyed by and judgemental of the panic attacks is Tony, which is fair enough as he's the one having them. He even acknowledges that he should get help, albeit quickly and in an off-handed way and then admits that he probably won't. This fits the character and again is not treated with judgement. These are complex issues and they're dealt with quickly but not clumsily. I've noticed that some people seem dissatisfied that the panic attack storyline was not resolved in the film, but frankly it would have been a cop-out if it had been.

The villain was handled very well. There was an understandable level of concern over using a villain called the Mandarin who was basically written as 70s yellow peril, how could that possibly play out well? They managed it, and in hindsight I'm quite impressed that the secret stayed unspoiled. The reveal that terrorist leader, the Mandarin is in fact Trevor Slattery, a junkie actor from London who plays the role for cash, was brilliant. I'm also impressed not only by Ben Kingsley's performance (which could have gone badly wrong in the hands of a lesser actor) but also in what he said in pre-publicity. I read an interview in which he talked about how theatrical the character was and how he manipulated his image, it just ties in so well with both what the character was and how he was used in-film.
I also liked the henchmen. Rather than being faceless goons they did appear to be actual people. There was some great comedy derived not only from the guard's amusement at Stark's unlikely and increasingly manic threats, but also from the henchman who immediately pleads for his life and says how much he hated his job and weird his bosses were. Why don't more henchmen do that?

Again Pepper saves the day, as she did in the first film (I don't think she did in the second, but I don't remember the plot too well). This time definitely taking the real villain out herself, and I thought it was interesting that she ends up having being super powered where Tony isn't. I think that could be an interesting dynamic going forward, but the ending doesn't make clear how much that situation will remain. I also like Pepper's attitude throughout most of the film, she seems to be the only thing keeping Tony connected to reality, and though that in no way stops him from doing stupid stuff she makes sure he knows how stupid it is. I kinda liked that the main villain wants Pepper for his own creepy reasons, but even he is ashamed enough to baulk from saying it bluntly. It makes clear just how repellent it is, and suggests that he still holds her in enough esteem to want to pretend that's not going to be the arrangement.

I like that Tony has a fandom, and is able to use that to his advantage without harshing the squee of his fan, even if the guy was a bit OTT. Actually the slightly amateurish-but-recognisable tattoo made me think of the science brothers fandom, which I'm bemused by but ultimately think is a good thing. So that was already in the forefront of my mind when Bruce Banner appeared at the end of the credits. I'm sure the science brothers fandom were greatly pleased by that.

The things I didn't like are just niggles, mostly do to with the final big action sequence.
I never felt as though Pepper was in any real peril. I knew that she would pretty much be immune to physical harm so didn't feel emotionally invested when she seemed to die.
All the suits at the end were a bit confusing, as they were just a series of flashes and movement. I couldn't tell what they were all for or how most if them were different. It also seemed a contrived that when Tony needed a suit he could simply fall into one, unless the plot was better served by him being unable to do so.
As I say, niggles really.

* I believe that of all the Avengers featured in the film, Stark was the one who would have been most profoundly affected by that sight. He's the only entirely human civilian on the team, and is also a man with a superiority complex who's used to being top-dog. It would have been a bad experience for anyone, but Stark had the least preparation for such a sight.

12 May 2013

Time Squared

Episode: s2, ep 13

I was hoping that an episode called Time Squared would be more interesting.

What Happens
The Enterprise comes across a powerless shuttle alone in the middle of space, with no indication as to how it got there. It's pulled into a cargo bay where Riker, Worf and Pulaski investigate. All the markings indicate it belongs to the Enterprise, but all the shuttles are accounted for. Inside is an unconscious Picard, even though they just left the Captain on the Bridge. Riker calls Picard and Data down to the cargo bay.

This is going to get a bit confusing, so I'm calling the version of Picard who started the episode on the Bridge Picard1 and the one who started the episode in the shuttle PicardA.

PicardA is unconscious and taken to sick bay. Troi  senses that PicardA is as much Picard as Picard1, but as he's unconscious she can't tell much more. Picard1 orders Pulaski to wake PicardA, but his brainwaves are out of phase and he can't remain conscious. Meanwhile Geordi and Data have trouble charging the shuttle, despite the connections being identical and idiot-proof (so idiot-proof that the Chief of Engineering was called). The charger is out of phase so they make adjustments and get enough power in the shuttle to extract the logs. In a staff meeting Geordi show the logs, which have footage of the Enterprise exploding while trapped in a swirly space-thingy. The timestamp indicates that this will have happened in about 3 hours time. No one understands. The plan is to simply continue and hope they don't make the same mistake again.
Pulaski belives that PicardA's bio-systems are out of phase because he's misplaced in time, and he'll get better the closer they get to the time he came from. Troi senses that he desperately wants to leave but probably doesn't know where he is. Pulaski thinks the whole thing is unhealthy and the Captain is under too much stress.
The ship wobbles, sirens blare, and a swirly space-thingy suddenly appears (as they seem to do). Its the same as the one from the shuttle cam. The ship is being pulled in and the engines are needed simply to stay in one place. At first Picard decides to stay and investigate, because poking at something that you know will cause an explosion is always a good idea. Racked with doubt he fears that any decision will be the wrong one; a probe is launched, it explodes. Geordi runs the engines nearly flat in order to remain stationery. Both Picards are shot by blue lightning (space lightning is always blue). Wherever Picard1 goes the blue lightning follows and Troi senses it's focusing on him. At this point he thinks that leaving the ship might help, but that's probably what PicardA thought too.
Picard1 goes to the sick bay where PicardA is awake but doesn't understand what's happening and apparently can't see his own double (for reasons I'll bet). PicardA is desperate to get on the shuttle so Picard1 has Pulaski release him and orders all the crew out of the cargo bay. The pair stride down corridors together and Picard1 speeches at his other self to find out what happened. PicardA believes the entity recognises him as the brain of the ship, which is why he/they are being targeted, he tried to leave in order to save the ship. Picard1 phasers his other self to stop the pattern, then orders the ship to fly straight into the vortex.* PicardA disappears and the Enterprise quickly arrives back in regular space.

Oh Captain, My Captain
It is understandable that Picard1 is shocked and suspicious to see a timeslip version of himself. He also seems unreasonably irritated and gruff towards PicardA, who is clearly suffering. Even when he's sure that PicardA isn't a trick, he's still pretty interrogatory and mean to him. At one point he even shakes his other self by the shoulders, which seems inadvisable to say the least.
Picard's main issue seems to be that he is unused to doubt. Knowing that something he will or won't do causes the ship to explode leaves him in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar position of second guessing himself. Welcome to the life of a neurotic, Picard.

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle-management ...and unsuccessful chef
Before the theme tune Riker is cooking omlette, with real eggs and a whisk and everything. Data, Geordi, Pulaski and Worf arrive with gifts. Data points out that cooking is not a very efficient means of feeding yourself, Riker talks about cooking in terms of subtly, flair and individuality. It turns out Riker likes cooking because his father hated it and left it to him. Worf queries why his mother didn't do it because it's his understanding that "in most human families the woman shares in the cooking."** For someone who was raised by humans Worf's understanding seems a few centuries out of date. Riker reveals that his mother died when he was young (as it turns out this will be relevant to the next episode).
Everyone hates the omlette, besides Worf, who finds it delicious. It turns out Riker bought alien eggs at a starbase and either they've gone off or else that kind of egg is gross.

Counsellor Pointless
Troi claims she can't explain what she's sensing from PicardA, then explains it. She often prefaces statements about her empathic abilities with comments like this. It's not just her job to sense these things but also to communicate them to people who can't. Of course no one can tell whether she's just making excuses or not, but I'd be interested to see whether another empath would call her out on this.
When the swirly space-thingy appears Troi senses a mind but not an intent. There's always a mind behind these things, isn't there. Space seems to be full of bloody big brains just floating about the place.

Poor O'Brien
O'Brien is in the cargo bay when the two Picards arrive and witnesses Picard1 phasering PicardA. Seeing a man you respect shooting his other self is pretty alarming. Then O'Brien sees PicardA and the shuttle fade out of existence, without a guitar solo or anything.

Like me Geordi probably can't see 3D films
Staff Meetings: 1
In the observation lounge Geordi plays the shuttle video log which is blurry because of phase shifting or something. The log shows a sad looking Riker, a swirly space-thingy and the Enterprise exploding. This will happen/has happened 3 hours and 19 minutes in the future.
No one can understand why the ship explodes nor why Picard would leave. Data refuses to theorise because he simply doesn't have enough info. Riker thinks the sequence of events is unavoidable, Worf mentions the mobius time-loop theory. Picard decides to keep going as normal and hope it's fine. Personally I would've thought that getting the hell out of dodge was a better idea.

Death by Space Misadventure
Technically everyone on the Enterprise, besides Picard, explodes in one time line. Then that Picard fades out of existance due to surprisingly dull timey-wimey stuff.

The End
Picard sits in the observation lounge and reflects on what just happened. Riker suggests it was a shared illusion, Picard thinks it was meant to happen. He does not recommend meeting yourself.

* Yes folks, the solution to this episode is actually a line from Star Trekkin'.

** FFS, I hate versions of the future where gender roles (among other societal things) are assumed to be entirely the same, or are portrayed very traditionally. Just for the record, in my human family the man does the cooking, mostly because he likes it and I'm not very good at it.

9 May 2013

Forests of the Heart

 I've found it strangely hard to write about books recently, hence the lack of book posts. Sorry about that. I'm determined to get restarted though.

Forests of the Heart 
Charles de Lint

Bettina grew up near the desert and was taught magic by her beloved grandmother. She is drawn guided north and follows the signs to Newford, where she ends up modelling in an artist's colony. It is here that she sees los lobos, shadowy men who linger in the spaces between the human world and la epoca del mito (the spirit world).* Sculptor Ellie receives a strange commission from an eccentric and androgynous patron. As a natural sceptic she finds it hard to believe those who say she has mystical powers and is alarmed when spooky stuff starts happening. Irish siblings Miki and Donal have never been well off, but life is better than it was when they were kids and at least they have each other. That is until Donal falls in with a bad crowd and crosses a line Miki can't forgive.

This is the first full novel I've read of Charles de Lint. After reading a collection of his short stories I knew I wanted to read more of his work, it was so interesting the way he mixed mythology, magic and modern life. I'm pleased to say that Forests of the Heart did not disappoint. The story draws on both Irish and Mexican/Indian (as in Native American) mythology and brings them together in a snowbound town in the northern United States. The trajectory of the story was mostly as I expected, but there were a few unexpected twists and some minor characters who proved more significant than I first expected. Due to the nature of magic the characters' backgrounds and internal conflicts are as much part of the story as the external action and danger.

There's a fairly large cast of characters, as when as several viewpoint characters there are linked groups of friends and relatives. Every character feels realistic, even if some of the minor cast are painted in fairly broad strokes and others are referred to more than seen (I assume they feature more prominently in other Newford books). The main characters are nostly sympathetic, even when they're at odds. Even antagonistic characters feel fleshed out and have believable motivations, even if they aren't likeable or what they do is bad. The psychology of the viewpoint characters is very important, especially in the case of Bettina. She is given the most detailed back story and her personal issues are a focus of the story. It was interesting to read the juxtaposition of the snowy northern city and Bettina's powerful memories of the desert.

The book was particularly atmospheric because as I was reading it the UK was hit by the most snow it's had in decades. I saw the deepest snow I've ever seen in my life (except for the time I went up a mountain in Switzerland, but I wasn't in the snow then). Of course I realise that the weather we had this spring is nothing compared to proper blizzards and ice storms such as those described in the book, but still it felt fitting to read it at that time.

* I may have learned a very random selection of Mexican-Spanish words.