30 May 2014

The Hunted

Episode: s3, ep11

Imagine if Captain America was sent to prison. In Space!

What Happens
The Enterprise visits a planet applying for entry to the Federation, the society successfully rebuilt itself after a terrible war. A violent prisoner escapes from a lunar colony and the Prime Minister asks if the Enterprise will intercept him. It should be easy, but the prisoner cleverly uses an asteroid and the magnetic field around the pole to evade detection. Data figures out what he's up to and he's beamed on board from an escape pod. The fugitive viciously attacks security and Worf has to restrain him. He's taken to the highest security cell. The PM says the prisoner is incredibly violent and suggests he is sedated until they can fetch him. He is somehow able to mask his lifesigns, so sensors can't detect him. Troi senses the nightmares of the prisoner and goes to see him. They have an odd conversation and he states that he killed 3 men to escape, but Troi is convinced that despite his actions he is not really a violent man. Troi and Data check the records the planet gave them as part of their application, the prisoner has no criminal record and he was a decorated soldier.
Troi's research and conversations with the prisoner reveal that he enlisted during the war. He and other volunteers were altered to become super-soldiers. They're normal until the programming kicks in, then they will ruthlessly fight any perceived threat. When the war ended they did not fit into peaceful society and were ordered to the lunar prison and left. Data talks to the prisoner about being programmed and whether it can be reversed or changed. Picard speaks to the PM, who claims the prisoner told them half-truths and refuses to discuss the matter, saying it's internal business. Picard tells the prisoner he has no right to keep him from the authorities, and the prisoner warns that he will do whatever is necessary to escape.
The prisoner somehow resists being transported and escapes with a phaser. He escapes and roams the ship, getting into tubes that belong to some guy called Jeffery, which are the starship equivalent of vents (he's in the vents!). He takes out security teams and causes distractions by setting phasers to explode, it looks as though he's heading for a shuttle. He seems to be trapped in a cargo bay, Picard orders gas to be pumped in. When Worf goes to retrieve him it looks as though the prisoner has stolen a space suit and gone outside. While attention is focused on the shuttle bays the prisoner, unaffected by the gas, beams away using a cargo transporter.
Prime Minister Hoggett calls to say the prisoner attacked the penal colony and released other prisoners who are now on the planet and heading to the capital. Their people are not equipped to deal with violence, that's what they programmed these soldiers for. Picard agrees to come and takes Data, Worf and Troi. Riker tells Worf that he is personally responsible for the Captain's safety. The PM is shocked by the small away team, government officials are nervously being given weapons. The away team tell the PM it's his responsibility for making the soldiers what they are, and ask if the process can be reversed, it's clear that hasn't really been tried. The soldiers burst in and surround the frightened officials. Picard tells everyone to remain calm; the soldiers are only conditioned to kill if they're threatened. The soldiers demand to go home, they refuse to be imprisoned anymore. The PM tells Picard to do something, and Picard says the only thing he can do is leave, this is internal business after all. Picard suggests that their society is likely to change rapidly in the next few minutes, and when that's settled they can reapply for Federation entry.

That'll do super-soldiers, that'll do.
Guest Star
It's Farmer Hoggett! I mean Zephram Cochrane, inventor of the first human warp drive. Er, I mean actor James Cromwell plays the Prime Minister.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard likes the planet, they are rational folk who go on about intellect, which Riker finds a bit stuffy. I think Picard sees himself as something of an academic, and fancies the idea of a life of the mind. However if he actually lived such a life he would probably miss the excitement of being a starship captain. Picard is happy to help when the PM asks them to detain an escaped prisoner, seems easy enough.
Despite being inclined to like the people Picard trusts his staff -especially Troi- in their judgement about the prisoner. When the PM refuses to discuss the soldiers who were modified in the war Picard wisely says "Matter for internal security. The age-old cry of the oppressor." It's a difficult sentiment to argue with.
Picard personally tells the prisoner that they have to return him to his own people, showing an appreciated level of respect. Despite Picard's obvious disapproval of this particular aspect of their culture, the PM contacts the Enterprise to help them when the escaped soldiers go to the capital. Picard realises that the situation with the soldiers needs to be resolved and the best thing he can do is nothing.

Does Not Compute
When the sensors can't pick up the prisoner's life signs Picard suggests he's an android and Data points out the sensors can detect artificial life. I expect I imagined the disgruntled note in Data's voice, but seriously if anyone is going to account for an android it's Data.
On learning that the prisoner has been programmed Data talks to him about that. The prisoner is one of the first people in the series not to realise what Data is straight away. Though are yellow eyes so unknown in all of the humanoid species that the prisoner feels the need to ask about that? During their conversation Data reveals that he's been programmed with military strategy, which was how he was able to catch the fugitive, but that he is not programmed to kill. I wondered if Data is Three Laws compliant? Then realised he wasn't. I don't think he's ever harmed a human, but I do think that he has by inaction allowed a human to come to harm. Does not being programmed to kill mean Data can't? Is his phaser always set to stun? I suppose we don't really know what Data can do until he does it, so perhaps he could kill but his programming discourages it? It's probably best to discourage death-as-a-solution in a being that has no feelings and would therefore feel no regret.
Besides if you were creating an android for combat you would totally put weapons in there somewhere, like maybe laser-eyes. Data doesn't have anything cool like that.

Klingon Warrior
Worf is the best at tracking the escaped prisoner through the ship and scuffles with him a couple of times. When the prisoner's cunning is revealed Worf wonders if he has Klingon blood. I'm never sure if Klingons are supposed to be cunning, or if they're supposed to be straightforward. This guy is actively avoiding combat, which seems distinctly un-Klingon and in a previous episode Worf claimed that Klingons don't bluff. So are they master strategists keen to get the upper hand in a situation, or are they warriors who like the simplicity of direct confrontation? The show can't seem to decide, but hey maybe Klingons are in fact people who have a variety of different traits.

Counsellor Pointless
Troi senses the nightmare of the prisoner, it's strong and strange enough for her to go and see him. He's understandably suspicious of her; the people who altered him were also called counsellors. He plays mind games and is very angry, but that's no surprise. In these interactions Troi realises that her sense of him is entirely at odds with what the PM said and with what he has done. Her insistence leads to the prisoner revealing what was done to him. In a staff meeting Troi insists that he is not inherently violent and that he doesn't demonstrate what would be found in a criminal personality.
I don't consider violence or criminality to be inherent, it strikes me as a dangerous idea. But if they are, what happens (or should happen) to those who do have those qualities? The prisoner admits to violence and murder, but yet something about him means that Troi can't believe his crimes. The outcome seems to be that he should be judged on his personality rather than his actions. This seems like an attitude that should be explored, but it isn't. I suspect Troi's lines aren't meant to carry the weight that they do. Then again she says 'inherent' twice in a few lines, and that feels at odds with what I thought the message of the programme was.

Poor O'Brien
When transporting the fleeing prisoner from his escape pod the transporters are able to disable his weapon, but he still takes out the 2-man security team sent to fetch him. When O'Brien tries to get him into a headlock he is attacked and stunned with a stolen phaser.

Staff Meetings: 1
1. Troi explains that the prisoner was an ordinary man who volunteered to fight in the war, but wasn't told what that would mean. At Troi's request Crusher has examined the prisoner and found that he has been altered physically and chemically as well as psychologically, which is why his life signs can't be detected. His own government altered him and other volunteers to make them perfect soldiers, including programming them to survive at all costs and attack whenever a threat is perceived. After the war he was sent to the lunar colony with his comrades, they couldn't be safely reintegrated into society. Apparently no one tried to reverse the alterations

Security Breach
Someone besides Worf emphasises that high security needed, and that's accepted for the most part. The guy's lifesigns are masked, so the Computer and sensors can't track him, making him a greater threat than most visitors. They don't go as far as sedating the guy, as the PM advised. Worf gets to be suitably suspicious and sticks security teams anywhere the prisoner is going. If only that had been enough. It's like these guys aren't used to people attacking and trying to get away from them.
The most secure cell on the Enterprise doesn't look so bad. There's a supply of water and a sink and mirror. I get the feeling they aren't concerned about suicides.
The prisoner manages to take out Geordi and the rest of Engineering single-handed. I guess that the crew in that area don't have weapons, even after the events of Heart of Glory.

The End
Picard returns to the Enterprise and tells Riker to update the report to say that if the government survives the night the Federation will help them reprogramme their veterans. Picard seems confident they will choose to survive and orders Wesley to take the ship away.

24 May 2014

The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M. Harris

In this book Joanne Harris (with added M) retells various Norse myths from the viewpoint of the much-maligned trickster Loki. It goes from the creation of existence (which Loki did not personally witness), to Loki leaving chaos, coming to Asgard and his various tricks and adventures there, through to ragnarok. Loki narrates the whole thing in first person with his own acerbic, personal take on things in a modern voice. This isn't a comprehensive retelling of Norse myths, but it sets up the world of Norse myths and deals with the bulk of those stories that involve Loki

I was expecting something a bit more revisionist than what I got. At the start of the book the suggestion is that we've all heard is the official version, whereas Loki is going to tell us the truth, or at least his version. The book is a retelling of Norse myths, with the spaces in between vaguely filled in with the prose equivalent of pages flipping off a calendar to mark the passage of time. Loki skips over the boring periods of his time in Asgard, which is fair enough. Even interesting bits (like him giving birth to an 8-legged horse) are skipped over. It felt as though if it wasn't in Norse myth, then Harris isn't interested in talking about it.* There's no suggestion of Loki doing things differently to what the myths say he does, or of the stories being purposefully manipulated by Odin. The real change is the tone, going from the usual serious, epic legends, to some guy talking conversationally about his life. I kept expecting a twist or trick, which didn't come.

I found it amusing that although the entire book takes place within the context of Norse legend, there's a modern feel to the sense of humour and the way Loki narrates. For example his wife is described as wearing aprons and making a lot of sponge cake. There's no sense that the narrative voice feels it's necessary to keep to period appropriate language or imagery, meaning that the legends feel removed from time and space, which I assume is purposeful. However this approach made me think that the story was going to extend into modern times, with updated/modern-dress versions of Norse myths going on in the present day. Or perhaps a here's-what-happened-next type of story. So I was a little  disappointed to find that all trips to Midgard, even in the late stages of the book, seemed to be early-medieval Scandinavia. Again I think I had different expectations of what the book would be.

The voice of Loki was entertaining, there are a lot of cynical and amusing asides that are highlighted in each chapter heading. However Loki was not written to be likeable. In fact once I stopped reading I realised that far from setting out his own point of view and explaining why his motivations might be different or alien to the usual narrative, he was mostly whining. The fact that the story doesn't deviate from the myths that have been handed down to us** means that Loki does a lot of bad stuff. His main motivation for any/all of it seems to be that no one liked him, that he's chaos and so it's in his nature, everyone refused to acknowledge how great he was because he was different, so it's not his fault. If you think these sound like the excuses of a child, or very self-involved adult, you'd be right. There are times when Loki clearly realises, as he's telling his story, that he did stuff that was foolish or rash or plain wrong, but he always finds a reason why we shouldn't blame him. I am entirely convinced that this was intentional on Harris's part, and she trod the line well, making Loki unlikeable but still interesting and amusing.

I do not know Norse myths as well as I know Greek ones, but I've read various bits and pieces in the past. I think there was a roughly 60/40 split between stories I already knew and ones I'd not heard before. I'd never had much direct information about Ragnarok before, I knew it was all about prophecies, and there are references to it in various other things I've read, but this is the first time I've seen it described. I thought it was meant to be the end of the world, but I'm not sure it's that clear cut and I was interested to hear about it.

If you are expecting anything like Marvel's The Mighty Thor, don't. Marvel have always taken huge liberties with the source material. If you are expecting something like what you read in a children's collection of Norse myths, that's pretty much correct. Joanne M Harris has made it all sound a lot less educational and a lot more entertaining and fun.

For a fantastical and modern(ish) version of Norse myth try Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones. It's children's book first published in 1975, but it really works.

* I could be wrong here, as I said I'm not familiar with all of Norse myth, but it didn't feel like there was much that stepped outside of the collected myths I'm aware of. My husband knows more about Norse myths, and he thought roughly the same thing, though he didn't read the entire books.

** The Norse myths that we have are largely from post-Christian sources, meaning that the earlier pagan beliefs may well have been altered by time or design - but that's a different topic and not addressed in this book other than occasional lines that equate Loki with Lucifer.

21 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-man 2

The Amazing Spider-man 2 opens, as the first did, with the events surrounding the flight of Richard and Mary Parker. This time we see things from a different viewpoint as Richard has to destroy his research, before recording a video about it then dropping young Peter off with May and Ben. This time we see why Ma and Pa Parker never return, though the secret they are protecting is not entirely lost. Then we cut to Spider-man and his present-day adventures. Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey are having an on-and-off relationship, mostly due to Peter apparently guilt-dumping her on a regular basis. Electro turns out to be a really sad-sack version of Syndrome (from the Incredibles) who goes crazy with power. Harry Osborne returns to New York in time for his father's deathbed scene, and is reunited with childhood friend Peter. Then he finds out more about his friend and the projects his dad had in the basement. The Rhino also turns up a bit.

There are mild spoilers for Amazing Spider-man 2 (and mention of Iron Man and Man of Steel, because comparisons).

I liked the character of Spidey more in these films than the Raimi ones, as I said when I reviewed The Amazing Spider-man 1. We still never really see Peter and Gwen having a normal relationship, there's clearly been, and continues to be, a fair bit of breaking up and getting back together. Saying that I really liked the way Gwen handled things in this film. She takes action to protect herself emotionally, makes advances in her scientific career, doesn't let Peter push her to one side for her own safety. In fact at one point she yells at him that it is her choice whether she endangers herself for him. Something that has been sorely lacking from traditional superheroic relationships. I also liked the uneasy relationship between Peter and Aunt May. Both are grieving for Ben, and both are keeping secrets from the other. I liked this because Aunt May clearly has her own life and her own things going on, plus she feels protective of Peter when it comes to his parents. After all she's the one who stuck around and raised him.

Ah yes, Spider-man's daddy issues. Those are back. In fact there's a plotline with Peter finding out yet more about what his father was working on and how that affects events now. Not much was done with the info discovered in this film, the focus at the end being on fighting the villains, but I feel that a picture is slowly being built across the franchise. Though as Aunt May asks, why does Peter still idolise the father who abandoned him? I concur, and have to ask, what about his mother? Mary Parker also left her son in order to help her scientist husband with his great work, but there's little sign Peter is bothered about her absence or reputation. I can't help but draw parallels with Lara-el (Superman's mother) from Man of Steel. She too endangered herself to help further her scientists husband's work, painfully giving birth to their son (which was a weird thing to in their culture) and she didn't get any holographic life-after-death like Jor-el. Still at least Supes and Spidey have mothers. Much like fellow billionaire-tech-brat Tony Stark in the MCU, Harry Osborne apparently doesn't have a mother. There's some talk between Peter and Harry about how they bonded as children in grief, suggesting Harry's unnamed mother died, which is more mention than Ma Stark has ever gotten.* The eventual fate of Harry holds up a dark mirror up to Tony Stark, and both own similar looking buildings with their names on.

There were lots of little things in the film that worked quite nicely, comedic moments and stuff that gains significance later. For example Spidey saves a small boy from bullies and later the kid's faith in Spidey makes him magically appear (OK, it doesn't, but that's kinda what it seemed like). Peter desperately offers to do laundry in order to hide the Spidey suit and Aunt May does the same to hide her nursing scrubs. Gwen slapping her hand over her mouth after shouting "Peter!" at Spidey when he races off in the middle of an argument. It's just such a natural thing for her to do. A brief email from the still-unseen JJ Jameson. I also found it amusing that when Gwen is going to an interview for Oxford University (which aparently has an embassy in New York?) Peter is entirely unable to talk normally to British people. Made all the funnier because Andrew Garfield is British.

The main issues with the film were perhaps in the villains. I could see very quickly what Electro's story-arc would be and it was predictable as it was diminishing to the character. The Goblin was alright, but like Electro he went eveil really quickly for no particularly good reason. The Rhino is introduced but little used, but at least his motives were clear and made sense. The fights looked impressive and had actual damage and weight to them, without being ridiculous slug-fests full of destruction, of course Spidey is a smaller scale hero when it comes to that sort of thing.

* For all the info the MCU gives us Tony Stark could have gestated in the thigh of his father, a la Dionysus.
What's more likely is that Howard Stark was an older father (based on the timeline I quickly figured out in my head while watching Captain America), and as all good fictional millionaires are also playboys (because reasons) it's likely that Tony's mother wasn't even a Stark. Though respectability politics will presumably disallow this too, meaning Ma Stark is conveniently gone and entirely forgotten.

18 May 2014

The Defector

Episode: s3, ep 10

This episode was good and surprised me and the ending was appropriate to the tone. Things are looking up.

What Happens
Data performs lines from Henry V (or so the internet tells me) in full costume, in the holodeck, while watched by Picard. It's part of his becoming-human project. Riker calls them to the Bridge. A Romulan scout ship is racing through the Neutral Zone, chased by a Romulan warbird. The Scout sends a distress message and the Enterprise moves to intercept it at the border. When challenged about entering Federation space the warbird turns and leaves without response. The injured Romulan from the scout ship is beamed aboard and says he has vital info. He's a low-level logistics officer defecting to the Federation with news of a secret Romulan invasion force massing in the Neutral Zone. The senior staff are suspicious of the whole thing, especially after his ship explodes, which he claims is standard procedure. He wants them to stop the invasion, but he won't sell his people out. When he's alone he pulls an orange disc from his boot, the music suggests it's suspicious.
Star Fleet tell Picard the Romulans are angry and they've convened an Emergency Council, but it'll be Picard's decision about whether to take action. He could be preventing or starting a war. Troi and Riker interrogate the defector, who is frustrated by the lack of action and won't give them extra info. Geordi tries to detect if there's any sign of a secret fleet, its not clear. He explains gut feelings to Data. Data talks to the Romulan, who wistfully describes home and all he's sacrificed. Data shows him a holodeck recreation of Romulus, which prompts the defector to reveal that he's actually an Admiral. He demands to see Picard.
Star Fleet confirms the Admiral's identity, they don't trust him either. Picard questions him and demands evidence. The Admiral had a daughter recently, made him rethink war and the future of the Romulan Empire. He became unpopular by trying to push for less aggression and was posted to a distant command. When he saw information about the secret fleet he knew he could only prevent war by warning the Federation. He doesn't want to be a traitor, he just wants peace. Picard pushes him until he agrees to give them whatever they want.
Picard orders the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone, breaching the treaty. (They've breached it before, but this has greater weight.) At the planet there's no sign of any fleet and the Admiral is brought to explain. He can't believe it, he saw the paperwork. Picard suggsets he was fed bad intelligence. Just as they're about to leave two warbirds de-cloak and they are hailed by Tomalak, the Romulan Captain from The Enemy. He is smugger than ever, it was all a trap. News that his sacrifice was in vain breaks the Admiral. Tomalak demands they surrender as POWs. Picard refuses and 2 Klingon birds of prey de-cloak, with weapons pointing at the Romulans. Tomalak is bitterly forced to let them go.

Guest Star
Andreas Katsulas, G'Kar from Babylon 5, returns as the Romulan Captain, Tomalak. Last seen two episodes ago in The Enemy.

One of the two holo-Shakespearean guys, who perform with Data in the first scene, is played by Patrick Stewart. He's using his Yorkshire accent and wearing a wig, beard, make up and costume. If you're going to have lines from Shakespeare in the episode you might as well use your Shakespearean actor.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard believes Shakespeare will help Data learn about humanity. Data does well but Picard lightly rebukes him for wanting to imitate well known performers, the point is that he should make it his own. Picard is happy with his progress, but not ready for him to perform in front of the crew yet.
Picard's communications with Star Fleet are pre-recorded messages with a 2 hour time-delay, even though in other episodes there are live conversations. Is that a sign of how far they are from Star Fleet? Picard is told that the decision to act against the Romulans will ultimately fall to him. Picard asks Data about the disposition of the crew and points out that unlike King Henry he cannot easily walk unknown amongst them. He quotes a line from Henry V about the King's responsibility if his men die in a bad cause.
After the Admiral has admitted his true identity Picard and Star Fleet are still not convinced of his honesty. Picard grills the Admiral forcefully, making him explain his situation and his motive. The Admiral suggests that Picard has sacrificed family for his career, and he couldn't possibly understand because he's not a parent. (He doesn't say it like that, but it's kinda what he means.) Picard refuses to act unless the Admiral fully sells out his people, it clearly breaks him a bit. It seems pretty harsh, but Picard has little reason to trust him and much reason to be wary.

Does Not Compute
It seems Data needs little prompting to get into costume. It's pretty funny to see him take the wig off as he and Picard go through the corridors. Data asks why the King would disguise himself and talk to commoners when he should be leading. Picard says that Shakespeare is telling the audience that the king has feeling for his men and he wants to share their fears, but cannot do so publicly. Picard later asks Data to keep a record of all that happens, because he isn't human and therefore can be objective about events. There's a sense of him wanting a record for history.
Geordi discusses gut feelings with Data, who doesn't understand how humans can feel their way to making decisions. Geordi has some difficulty explaining the concept, but Data seems to grasp that the unknown is filled in by the individual's personality and instinct. It is interesting that Geordi's gut feeling -that the Romulans are up to something- proves wrong. Of course this may be him picking up that the Admiral truly believed what he was saying, and/or based on his opinion of Romulans.
Data stares at the Romulan as he sits in 10 Forward, in an attempt to develop a gut feeling. The Romulan knows Data is an android - people always seem to know, even though androids are supposedly super rare, even people who don't understand androids. They state in conversation that each side doesn't know much about the other, couldn't Data just be a really pale human? I suspect the issue is that Brent Spiner just looks too human. The Romulan wistfully tells Data about home, he knows how much his actions have cost him. Data takes him to the holodeck and accurately recreates Romulus, a planet Data previously stated their Computer had very little information on. (There's no way our replicators could figure out how to create that drink you like, but hey, here's an entire valley.) This blast of home-that-isn't-home prompts the defector to reveal his true identity.

Klingon Warrior
It seems the events of The Enemy are common knowledge among Romulans (although as this guy was an Admiral I don't know how 'common' the knowledge is). I can't imagine that any Romulans could know about Worf's refusal to be a donor. The only Romulan who knew died, and its not information that was discussed by anyone other than Picard, Riker and Crusher, though it's likely some of Crusher's staff knew. This means that the looks the defector throws at Worf are just racism. He insults Worf in Klingon, apparently to bait him. Worf is restrained in the face of this and it's Riker who also uses Klingon to tell their unexpected guest that his behaviour is out of order. After Worf has gone the defector says he understands him, he has regards for warriors, but knows the danger of those who will leap into a fight.
Picard calls Worf to his ready room after hearing from Star Fleet, but we don't see the meeting. Later Worf is sent off the Bridge to take a message for Picard from the security chief of a Klingon vessel. Despite these clues I didn't see the Klingon aid coming. I guess I'm not used to Star Trek being this subtle, or maybe I was just being slow. I'm sure my husband would've got it, he's very good at that sort of thing.

It's A Trap!
Yeah, that. At first they think the defector is a Romulan trap. Then it turns out he came with good intentions but is being trapped alongside the Enterprise. Then Picard reveals the secret Klingon support, not quite trapping the Romulans, but tricking them.

Future is Better
The replicators use Celsius metric system, Romulans don't (no reason they should). This means that in the future I will understand the temperatures. Or at least I understand temperatures on Star Trek, as opposed to other US TV.

Security Breach
The Romulan defector is followed around by a security officer at all times, even when he's with a member of the senior staff. This is what sensible security procedure looks like, glad they're aware of it. Maybe they should take that approach a little more often.

Staff Meetings: 4
1. The defector tells the senior staff about the Romulan legion that's been built up at a secret Romulan base in the Neutral Zone, which will attack Federation sites in 48 hours. He urges then to destroy the base first, remove the threat and prevent war. After Worf takes him to sickbay Picard, Riker, Data and Geordi discuss his story, it could easily be a ploy, they need more info. Riker and Troi are to interrogate him, Geordi to check out his scout ship. Data asks to watch the interrogation, but Picard needs him on the Bridge. The scout ship explodes.
2. Geordi shows Picard, Crusher and Data that the warbird slowed with the scout ship, chasing it when it could have caught up. It suggests a Romulan plan, chasing a spy in. Crusher isn't sure as the defector was badly burned and she doubts his wounds were self-inflicted.
3.Geordi and Data report the results of a probe to Picard. There are odd signals coming from the planet. They don't seem to be a mass of cloaked Romulan ships and a base, but its hard to be certain.
4. After the Admiral has told him everything Picard tells Riker, Data, Crusher, Geordi, Worf and Troi that he has full information on Romulan tech and fleet positions. This resolves Picard to go in, though he's aware it could still be a trick.

This episode directly follows on from the events in The Enemy. This is a good thing as previous encounters that seemed like they should have repercussions often didn't (or haven't so far). Presumably this is a loosening of the format that required everything to be wrapped up neatly in a single episode.

Won't Somebody Think of the Children?
Picard could be leading the Enterprise to war for all he knows. Shouldn't he maybe send the kids and non-combatants off the ship as a precaution? That he doesn't suggests he has lots of faith in their Klingon escort.
The Admiral does think of the children, or rather his new baby daughter. From being a military man he sees that warmongering should be resisted at all costs for the benefit of future generations.

The End
Admiral quietly killed himself, turns out that orange disc was a suicide pill. He left a letter for his wife and daughter. There's no way that it can be delivered by the Federation. Picard says that it can't be delivered yet, but if there are others with the Admiral's courage there might one day be peace and the letter can be sent home.I hope that that's what the Admiral was thinking, it's a small ray of hope in a bleak ending.

This is the 2nd episode in a row with an appropriately downbeat ending. Also there hasn't been a jokey ending since the first episode of this series and the last corny joke was the final episode of series 2. I'm counting this as a positive, the forced jollity of previous series didn't always fit.

12 May 2014

Enchanted Glass

Enchanted Glass  
 Diana Wynne Jones

Andrew Hope inherits Melstone House from his grandfather, along with the old man's field-of-care, which stretches into the countryside around the house and the local town of Melstone. Unfortunately Andrew does not fully understand the implications of what he has taken on. When orphaned Aidan Cain runs away from his foster home and turns up at Melstone House, having been told by his grandmother to go there if he's ever in danger, he brings changes in his wake. Andrew is made to remember some of the magical things his grandfather told him, and comes to understand a dangerous deal made between his ancestor and reclusive neighbour Mr Brown. How does this connect with the beautiful stained glass in Melstone House, and why are there so many people who look similar turning up.

I'm a big fan of Diana Wynne Jones, having discovered her books as a teenager and reading loads of them, even when I guess I was technically too old for most of them (not that that should be an issue with books, they are designed to be enjoyed whatever your age). Enchanted Glass is a standalone children's book set in a fictional part of rural England, with a brief diversion into London. As with many of Jones's books the setting is one where there seems to be magic, but it is not quite out in the open. Many of the main characters have some form of magic that is inherently linked to their personality - another staple of Jones's work. In the case of Stashe O'Connor it only manifests in small ways, but both Andrew and Aidan have a lot of magical talent, even if neither fully understands what they can do and they have to help each other to discover their powers.

Andrew Hope and Aidan Cain (whose name no one can get right) are the main characters. Man and boy have quite a few similarities. Both had a close relationship with a magical grandparent, both have family issues that are only partly explored. Both can do powerful magic, but aren't quite sure of themselves. Academic Andrew seems very passive and non-confrontational, causing him to have a reputation as an absent-minded professor (not that he is a professor at all). When in fact he arranges things to avoid confrontation and has a very solid presence that he doesn't always reveal. Aidan is a brave kid who runs from London to strangers in Melstone House when weird forces pursue him. He is able to show Andrew a child's-eye view of things, and reminds him of things that he had forgotten when grown up and preoccupied with adult concerns. Stashe O'Connor is the main female character, who is manipulated into helping in Andrew's house by her uncle, but soon proves invaluable at spotting when odd things are happening and sorting out problems.
The book is full of supporting characters from the small town of Melstone. Most of them have the surname Stock (Jones rightly shows that in some parts of England you do find people who aren't directly related who all have the same surname). Andrew's housekeeper and gardener are both determined to keep doing things their way and scheme against him and each other to gain the upper hand. The conflict between these characters is domestic and well written, providing much entertainment as well as contributing to the plot as much as the actions of the main characters. They are perhaps caricatures, but they are bold and memorable.

This is a fun book, full of personality and magic. The plot is well paced and rarely falls into obvious or predictable patterns. It has many of the elements often found in Jones's other stories, including an antagonist who is not immediately apparent, a modern link to folktale characters, magic in unexpected places and people getting on with their lives in the face of the unusual.

6 May 2014

The Vengeance Factor

Episode: s3, ep 9

Riker doesn't (quite) get the girl and Picard plans to stop space raiders using civilisation.

Goodby yellow brick road
What Happens
An away team beams down to a derelict Emerald City, which has been raided. Bloodstains at the scene belong to a race of raiders called the Gatherers, who're being a bloody nuisance. The Enterprise goes to a less-rowdy group of the same race. The Sovereign explains that they used to be a violent people, then 100 years ago they became civilised. At that point the Gatherers split from the homeworld (splitters!) and became space raiders. She says they've tried to bring them back into the fold, but the last attempt 18 years ago was rejected. Picard urges her to try again, because at that this point their problem is inconveniencing the Federation. Plus peace and unity and all that jazz.
The Sovereign and her servants come on the Enterprise, including her young, blonde chef who catches Riker's eye. There's little use for a chef when they have replicators, but she says she'll make Riker a traditional meal. An away team beams down the grimy building site where the Gatherers live, they've boosted a lot of tech. Worf smells an ambush, because Gatherers have poor personal hygiene, and the away team ambushes their ambushers by cunning use of smoke and pretending to leave. Riker brings the Sovereign to speak to the leader of this group, which looks like every stereotypical, unwashed biker gang on US TV. Each side insults the other, so Picard has to play teacher and make them sit down and play nice. The Gatherer leader will negotiate but doesn't want to appear weak so he sends his men away. The Chef quietly approaches an old Gatherer and kills him with a touch, it's a clan thing. The old man's body is found and Crusher pronounces a heart attack, but isn't convinced. The Gatherer leader agrees to take the Sovereign and the Enterprise to a higher Gatherer authority to negotiate peace.
The Sovereign reiterates to Picard their old obsession with vengeance, clan wars and escalating violence. Chef asks for leave to go make a meal for Riker. Chef brings food for Riker, Troi takes the hint and leaves. Riker is uncomfortable with her servile manner, he wants to them to be equals. She isn't used to that and isn't good at conversation. She confuses him by talking in riddles about having no freedom and being stuck on her path. Crusher calls Riker to sickbay, she's discovered the old man was killed by a tailored micro-virus that targeted his DNA, so it was murder.
Chef comes to Riker's quarters for "dessert". She offers to do anything for him, but he's put off by her submissiveness. She claims to have lost the ability to feel pleasure or passion. Riker is tender with her and they kiss, but a red alert spoils the moment and Riker is called the Bridge. A Gatherer ship is firing on them regularly, even though it's much smaller. The Gatherer ship won't respond to hails, so Picard has Worf knock out their shields. The Gatherer ship hails the Enterprise, Picard says they're there to talk. The Gatherer captain doesn't want to talk, but Picard, Sovereign and Gatherer leader beam over anyway. Gatherer Captain is suspicious that the deal will make them slaves or prisoners. The Sovereign offers land, but Gatherer Captain wants autonomy and won't agree to anything until their rights are set out.
Riker requests the medical database for the entire planet/species, and gets it sent to Crusher. Crusher's
research shows the micro-virus has killed people from the same clan as the old Gatherer. A photo from a long ago trial where someone died from the virus shows Chef in the background. They realise she's from a clan that was assumed to be entirely wiped out. Gatherer Captain is the last one of the attacking clan left.
At the negotiations Picard points out that Gatherer Captain and Sovereign are alike, neither is happy with that. Chef brings brandy and Riker beams in to knock it from Gatherer Captain's hand. Riker points a phaser at Chef and warns her not to move. She admits that she was altered to stop aging by the last of her clan and long ago set on a path of vengeance, she became Sovereign's chef to get to her enemies. Riker tries to talk her out of it, but has to shoot her and then kill her to prevent murder. The Gatherer Captain declares himself in Riker's debt. In the last scene Riker is sad and thoughtful and Picard says that the truce between the two groups is now in effect.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard decides that peace must come to this alien species, because their renegade group is raiding and attacking Federation bases and basically being a danger to shipping. Picard uses his speeching powers (though not at full force) to convince the Sovereign that she should try for peace again. After that he refrains from speeching at the Gatherers, determined that any negotiation or settlement should be decided between the 2 groups involved. However his role as mediator seems to mostly involve stopping people from getting worked up and resorting to insults and squabbling. It looks annoying, but Picard and the negotiations are really the back story here. He refuses any escort when beaming to the Gatherer ship because he must be a mediator not an enforcer

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle-management
In this episode Riker gets to demonstrate all 3 of his roles. He leads both away teams into danger. He's
behind the smokescreen and the fake order to beam up during ambush. When the Gatherers think they've gone they drop their guard allowing the Federation team to ambush them.
I immediately assumed Riker and Chef would end up sleeping together, but the episode actually subverted my expectations. He wants to, but her submissiveness and servile nature puts him off, he tries to explain equality to her but she claims it's unfamiliar. I give Riker credit here, she offers to do anything for him but he refuses because he doesn't want one-sided sex. Even now there's this damaging idea that sex is something that is done to women, rather than something they take an active part in. Nice to see a positive message about sexuality here. I was surprised that Riker didn't actually get to sleep with her, but given what happens later it makes sense. I guess they don't want a repeat of Kirk's curse. I'm told a lot of Kirk's sexual conquests end up dead, which seems like a bad pattern.
Riker requests and is given all the medical records. He sources this data for Crusher, which makes you wonder why he has more clout than someone who used to be head of Starfleet Medical. He's (sensibly) concerned about Picard going to a hostile ship alone, and the Gatherer Captain does suggest taking him prisoner.

Doctor Doctor
Crusher is immediately suspicious when looking at the body because although it looks like a heart attack the victim has a strong heart. She gets the medical records of an entire, non-Federation planet. None of the data is anonymised and there's even a 50 year-old photo from some guy's trial. I feel like they have a very different attitude to data and privacy than we do. How do they know the Federation won't try to sell them drugs or medical insurance?

When the Gatherer leader come on the Enterprise he scoffs that they have a child flying their ship, which seems like a reasonable thing to be concerned about. He gives Wesley a heading that leads through an asteroid belt, Wes comes up with a safer alternative course. The Gatherer seems unimpressed by this too, but if you are going to have someone underage flying the ship it's probably good that they're cautious.
In 10 Forward the Gatherer leader interrupts Wesley's homework and says Wesley doesn't like him, but that doesn't stop them being friends. I don't get why the leader of a band of space raiders would want to be friends with a prim teen who's good at maths, I think he's bored. Wesley calls him a thief. Gatherer leader talks about survival and freedom, but says he's interested in the deal because he wants better for his children. Wes is surprised the leader has children, but it seems his eldest is Wesley's age, except he's not good at maths.

Planet of... Splitters
The Gatherers seem to have abandoned their homeworld when everyone else was civilised by whatever civilising influence they had. However the split doesn't seem to have happened down clan lines. The constant, bloody clan wars don't seem to have been carried on by Gatherers, anymore than anyone else (except Chef). I get the impression that it was a form of controlling, centralised government that brought about the change. The lack of freedom or autonomy was what drove the Gatherers into their roaming existence. Gatherer Leader talks wistfully about answering to no creature, and Gatherer Captain laughs at the idea of having land and being farmers. The way Sovereign treats Chef (and presumably the other, unnamed servants) suggests a caste system. Chef says she isn't a slave and can leave when she likes (except for her quest), but it seems that she's conditioned to be servile. It's hard to tell much more as she proves to be atypical and we never see interactions with other servants.

Death by Space Misadventure
The old Gatherer was Volnoth of the clan Lornak, killed by a targeted micro-virus that looked like a heart attack, at first.

Chef was Yuta of the clan Tralesta, last survivor of a massacre, altered to stop aging and set on a oath of vengeance she will not deviate from. Killed by Riker while trying to murder her last victim.

The End
Riker sits pensive at the bar in 10 Forward. Picard comes over, talks about routine matters and suggests extending shore leave on their next stop. Riker dully says he will pass the message along. I think that maybe this was meant to be a comforting moment, but I'm not entirely sure. Neither brings up the subject. Either Picard thinks that work-talk will help, or else he doesn't want to make things awkward by mentioning it. You feel as though Riker wants as little communication as possible. At the end Riker just looks sad as Picard walks away. I'm gad they didn't try to lighten the mood with a joke, this ending feels appropriate