30 May 2017

Unification Part II

Episode: s5, ep 8

What Happens
Previously: Picard was sent after Ambassador Spock who ran off to Romulus, and the Enterprise discovered an old Vulcan ship was stolen from a Federation scrap yard.

Picard confronts Spock in a cave, asks why he came to Romulus and tells him his father is dead. Spock says he came in the cause of reunification; an underground group of Romulans are interested in Vulcan culture and Spock thinks that the two long-divided cultures could come together again. Although this movement is suppressed by the Romulan government Spock's friend, Senator Pardek, says there's a reforming proconsul who is sympathetic and wants to meet Spock. Picard and Spock also discuss the latter's difficult relationship with his father and Spock accuses Picard of speaking with Sarek's voice. Data asks their Klingon escorts for computer access so he can hack Romulan intelligence systems and send a message to the Enterprise.
Meanwhile Riker is in a seedy bar talking to a four-armed, pianist who is the ex-wife of a smuggler somehow connected to the missing Vulcan ship. The investigation is not important enough to be filmed (I suspect they ran out of time). The pianist indicates that a fat Ferengi who frequents the bar was involved with her ex-husband's dodgy dealings. Later Worf reports the Ferengi has arrived, then Riker makes him reveal where the old Vulcan ship went. It was given to people who trade with the Romulans.
Spock meets a proconsul who seems happy with the idea of reunification and is prepared to publicly endorse opening talks. Spock is surprised this is going so well. The underground Vulcan-sympathisers are super excited, but Picard suggests caution. Spock says he will continue seeking reunification, even though he agrees with Picard that this all might be a trap. Spock helps Data hack into Romulan systems and they discuss their differing views on humanity. Now able to contact the Enterprise Picard learns from Riker that the people who had the old Vulcan ship sent the Romulans a coded message. The info in this message tells Spock that the proconsul has a plan that involves the stolen ship. As they realise the deception Sela (half-Romulan daughter of alt-timeline Tasha Yar) appears from the shadows and captures them. She reveals that she and the proconsul plan to invade Vulcan.
There are 3 stolen Vulcan ships, the start of an invasion. Sela tries to get Spock to give a speech saying the ships are peace envoys, but he refuses. She plans to use a holographic Spock instead. Picard, Data and Spock are left in the proconsul's office under guard, the Romulans haven't realised their computers were hacked, and Spock has a plan. When Sela returns her hostages are gone, then Riker and Star Fleet security officers appear. The Romulans shoot them and discover they're holograms, then Spock appears from a holographic wall and disables a Romulan guard, Data gets a Romulan weapon and trains it on Sela. She thinks the invasion will still be successful because of her fake-Spock message.
The Enterprise sees the 3 Vulcan ships coming out of the Neutral Zone, but they don't seem to match the one they've been tracking. At the same time Crusher gets a distress call from a planet that needs evacuating. They're about to go help when a broadcast comes from Spock, who says that the ships are actually a Romulan invasion force. The evacuation call was fake and so the Enterprise goes to intercept the "Vulcan" ships, but a Romulan ship de-cloaks and destroys their own forces rather than allow them to be captured.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard acts according to his orders from Star Fleet, but also as a proxy for Sarek. He believes what he's saying, but his duty, his memories from Sarek and his own personality all line up very neatly, so there's no internal conflict. Instead he argues with Spock's course of action, causing the Vulcan (who is much older than him) to treat the Captain as a father-figure, and it's likely that Picard is expressing feelings he got from Sarek. It really is hard to tell where Picard ends and Sarek's influence begins, which explains Spock's reaction to him. Picard points out during a heated discussion that he is not just a mouthpiece for Sarek, which is nicely reflected at the end of the episode when Picard calmly and sympathetically offers to be a conduit for Sarek's memories to help a grieving son. Although Picard counsels caution, is compared to Sarek at various points and even described as Vulcan-like, Spock somehow also compares him to Kirk. Presumably the writers couldn't resist the temptation. I thought Picard is meant to be a very different kind of Captain, though his character contains enough range that he can be both Kirk-like and not as episodes require.

Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
In a brief log Riker explains why he's at the bar, which seems like both a cop-out and a relief. On the one hand much more investigating would've slowed things down. On the other hand it feels like cheating for the careful investigation of last episode to have magically tracked down someone useful off screen when all we knew before was that the ship stealing supplies was mysteriously unidentifiable and then exploded. There's no connection between where they were and where they get to; it definitely feels like something got cut. I can mostly forgive it for the scenes in the dodgy bar, with the pianist. Plus the pianist is cool and Riker is charming with her. After he got Troi to be placatory on his behalf last episode I notice he's fine with a charm offensive when he feels like it. He threatens a Ferengi and follows his lead to a place near the Neutral Zone, after which the hole-filled investigation is overtaken by events. I get the feeling that Riker was suspicious about what's happening, which is why he's skeptical about orders not to interfere and the evacuation elsewhere. I find it odd that Riker doesn't disguise himself while seeking information, he's doing it officially and presumably the bar is in Federation space (or somewhere friendly), but it's pointed out that it isn't exactly a Star Fleet place. He has no need for the kind of subterfuge Picard and Data had to employ behind enemy lines, but it seems like Star Fleet uniforms would attract unwanted attention and probably deter potential leads.

Does Not Compute
This episode bluntly compares and contrasts Spock and Data; it is only logical. There's little subtext to the exchange where they discuss how they relate to each other. Each has qualities the other aspires to and they both point this out. Data is more Vulcan-like than Vulcans, yet wants to achieve humanity; while Spock has chosen a Vulcan way of life, turning his back on his human heritage. It's not the first time someone has expressed confusion that Data is dissatisfied with himself (which seems like an emotion and a strong one as it's his driving motivation). This feels like a meeting of equals, which isn't surprising as Data was clearly designed as the Spock stand-in. Data points out that Spock's claim of "no regrets" is a very human thing to say, leaving the Ambassador deep in thought.

Security Breach
Shouldn't Spock wear a hood, or a hat, or something when visiting the proconsul? He's a very famous Vulcan and he's just wandering into a Romulan government office like it's no problem. The main trait we've seen from Romulans is that they're suspicious, and that's not just the military ones the Enterprise has encountered in space, there's the lady from the cafe last episode who felt the need to quiz out-of-towners. The furtive nature of the underground shows how oppressive the regime is, books and toys are objects of danger because they promote knowledge the government doesn't want people to have. I know that the security forces are in on the plan, but it seems like Spock should be taking more precautions when he's out and about.

Future Is Better
We don't get to see the seedy side of the Trek universe much, but it's nice to know it exists. The Federation and Star Fleet are so wholesome and shiny, and even when bad stuff happens within it, there's a sense that it's an anomaly. Nice to see that there are folk just getting by as best they can, even if they haven't got a fancy job. Having said that I kind wish this section didn't have decorative ladies, because they probably have interesting stories but we aren't supposed to care.

The talk about progressive reform on Romulus sounds good. Pardek says young people won't allow old men like him to "hold on to ancient prejudice and hostility". The young proconsul says "The old leaders have lost the respect of the people. ... Times are changing, and leaders who refuse to change with them will no longer be leaders." It is all lies. Just goes to show you can't necessarily trust people who talk the talk. Pardek betrayed Spock, but it's never made clear how long he was in on the plan. He's been friends with Spock for years, the Vulcan praises his unique viewpoint, and his political record certainly suggests he's an unorthodox Senator. Plus the underground clearly know and trust him, though they didn't show him all their secret caves, suggesting he might be new to them. Was he just recently used by Romulan security forces, and do they have leverage over him? Or has he been cynically playing at friend, ally and man of the people for decades in order to subvert the Underground and monitor a Vulcan ambassador? I think the show wants us to think the latter, though I think the former would have been more interesting.

Girl Talk
Troi has 6 lines, Crusher has 2, neither do anything of much import. The episode doesn't come near Bechdel-Wallace requirements, I'm not sure 2 female characters even share the screen. We do have the return of Sela who, as I commented  before, is a mastermind and a strong antagonist, though she doesn't feel as impressive this time. Her background was revealed at the start of this series and gave her some complexity, but the novelty of her appearance has worn off. Here she's a returning adversary and really just another devious Romulan strategist, though perhaps more bold than previous ones.

Amarie the fat, four-armed pianist is amazing and the kind of woman we don't usually see on this show (and not just because of the arms). She's not there as decoration and she's not treated as comic relief or looked down on. She's confident, flirty and a talented musician, who knows the music of various cultures, even a bit of Klingon opera. Plus she's had multiple husbands, so she's probably quite a catch. She thanks Riker for killing her ex and she's not at all intimidated by Worf, which is kinda badass.

The End
The rebel Romulan underground must go further into hiding after Pardek's betrayal, but say they'll keep teaching Vulcan ways to their children. Spock tells Picard he'll stay to help these people, though reunification is a long way off. Spock reveals that he never mind-melded with his father, so Picard offers Spock to mind-meld with him and see what Sarek shared with him.

15 May 2017

Recollected Reading: Novels

Being pregnant then having a baby has had a bad impact on my reading and book blogging. In no particular order here are thoughts on some of the novels that stood out to me in the last year.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor 
Set in Lagos this is the story of aliens coming to Nigeria. Although the story focuses on 4 people who are changed by the aliens it features a broad spectrum of characters (mostly human) from across the city and beyond. The joy and skill of the book lies in the way that such a massive and diverse set of characters are all depicted realistically as people (even those that are beyond traditional personhood) and so that their very divergent viewpoints are understandable. The story spreads from the arrival of the extra-terrestrials and radiates out along familial/friendly/religious/political connections to encompass those who are touched in some way by the extraordinary events in the lagoon. I have very limited knowledge of Lagos or Nigeria, so I found myself learning a lot from the book. It is a story filled with the vibrancy, danger and joy of the city, with the setting becoming like an additional character.

The Vagrant by Peter Newman
A silent, hooded man with a baby and sword crosses a wasteland corrupted by demonic forces. This science fantasy starts off rather bleak, but the story becomes more engaging as the eponymous mute encounters allies and makes friends on his quest to take his charges to those distant lands untouched by the blight of invasion. The central relationship is strong, if a little ambiguous (which I assume is on purpose), and I began to like the Vagrant as I saw him through the eyes of his companion Harm. It can be hard to engage with a character who has no dialogue, but the characters surrounding him work well. Some levity is provided by the goat and the baby, though I suspect now that I have a baby myself I would find this a harder read as there's a lot of darkness. As well as following the unusual central party the reader sees the viewpoints of the antagonistic forces arrayed against them. These are mostly different factions of the infernal force that invaded the land and also the people who live and survive on the edges of this twisted world. The nature and variety of these characters shows a lot of imagination, and there's much that is both unusual and gruesome. The setting reminded me of Alan Campbell's Deepgate Codex, though this book is neither as weird nor as gory as that series. The Vagrant is the first in a trilogy and the final volume was launched recently.

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
This is the sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds (which I loved), but it's a different sort of story. It follows on from the previous volume to an extent but focuses on Rafi, nephew of Grace Delarua (the protagonist of the previous book). It starts with Rafi at a school/institution for people with psionic abilities, and then becomes a story about him leaving the planet he's always lived on and setting himself up in a very different society. The thread running through Rafi's plotline is a Game that turns out to be more important than entertainment. The story also centres around Rafi's friends and there are continuations of events in the previous book. In some respects this books fills in details that were in the background of the last book, so I now have a better understanding of the different humans featured and the wider Galactic politics and factions in play. I didn't love this the way I loved The Best of All Possible Worlds, but that would have been a hard book to top. I felt with was a good read and a strong story, though it felt distinctly more melancholy there were lighter moments. The way the author pulled so many threads together was intriguing and again the characters were very convincing.

Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
Whenever Nolan closes his eyes he is transported into the mind of Amara, a girl who is forced to be the companion of an exiled, fugitive princess. Nolan is basically absent from his body whenever he closes his eyes, even blinks, which makes it difficult for him to live a normal life in our world. Amara has no idea Nolan is there, has always been there, until he is suddenly able to control her. Then they can communicate and Amara is angry. As they discover more about their situation the harsh realities and secrets of Amara's world come to the fore. This is an interesting concept, and feels like a standard what-if taken to extremes to create a compelling story. The author has clearly researched the real world implications of this seemingly-fanciful notion. Nolan's health problems and the burdens they place on him and his family (they live in the US, so there's financial stuff as well as the emotional/social impact) are as important as the other world with its politics and magical scheming. I enjoyed this book and engaged with the characters. The author manages to make the characters engaging, their situation feel grounded and as the story intriguing.

8 May 2017

Unification Part I

Episode: series 5, ep 7

You can tell it's a 2-parter, there's a lot going on and the A and B plots don't dovetail.

What Happens
Picard has a confidential meeting with an Admiral because Ambassador Spock disappeared and was spotted on Romulus. Picard must follow Spock and find out if he has defected. Picard has feelings about this because he mind-melded with Spock's father, Sarek, and knows about their difficult relationship. Sarek's wife meets with Picard; she doesn't get on with her stepson because he publicly disagreed with his father. She's certain Spock wasn't captured because he wrapped up his affairs, but she's angry he didn't say goodbye to his father. She allows Picard to see Sarek because of their bond. Sarek is ill and pained, but lucid enough to recall that Spock had a Romulan contact called Pardek. Sarek refuses to believe Spock is a traitor, but he disapproves of his son's actions. He asks Picard to tell Spock that he loves him. It's a super sad scene.
Info on Pardek shows he's a Senator who advocates for peace. He's with Spock in the intelligence picture. To follow Spock Picard needs a cloaked ship, so he goes to Klingon leader Gowron who owes Picard for helping him get his position. Gowron ignores Picard's call and Worf says Gowron has been claiming he won the recent civil war by all himself. A junior Klingon official tries to laugh off Picard's request for a cloaked ship, but Picard uses diplomacy to send a message to Gowron and a cloaked ship arrives. Picard and Data are made to share quarters on the Klingon ship. While they're travelling through Romulan space a message reports that Sarek has died. Data is a difficult roommate.
Meanwhile, pieces from a Vulcan ship were found in a crashed Ferengi ship, the Enterprise is asked to investigate. The original ship is identified and, after Picard and Data leave, Riker takes the Enterprise to a Federation scrapyard run by an officious Quartermaster. They discover that the decommissioned ship is missing and that the storage ship which held the recovered parts is also gone. The Quartermaster is shocked as they beam stuff to the storage ship daily. The Enterprise powers down and hides among the hulks until the next scheduled shipment. An unidentified ship arrives where the storage ship should be, it looks to be full of weapons, and receives the beamed supplies. Riker hails the strange ship; there's no response and the other ship fires on them. Riker has Worf fire back and they damage it then it explodes.
On Romulus Pardek is told by security forces that Picard is expected to arrive. Picard and Data, disguised as Romulans, find the place where the picture of Spock and Pardek was taken, it's near an office belonging to Pardek's relative. They try to ask about the office at a local eatery, but the staff are very suspicious and paranoid (apparently Romulans are like this even at home). They see Pardek and try to follow him, but two soldiers apprehend them. Picard and Data are taken to a cave where Pardek says he had to get them off the streets and assures them they're among friends.

Oh Captain, My Captain
Picard's relationship with Sarek is unusual, Picard saw into the old Vulcan's mind and felt his strongest emotions when his control was weakened by disease. Though Picard has only met Spock once he knows about him from history and has seen him through his father's eyes, it creates an odd picture of a person. Sarek's wife Perrin is full of tension as she discusses her husband and stepson, she's angry with Spock on his father's behalf and protective of Sarek. Now she's suffering as she watches her husband dying and wanting to reconcile with his son. The scene with Sarek is heartbreaking, Perrin has to be firm to bring him round then he just dismisses her. Picard talks to Sarek about Spock and his Romulan contact, and Sarek gets confused. He's pained by his relationship with his son and tries to be strong in the face of his turmoil, but cannot hold himself together for long. It's a very emotional scene.
Picard expects Gowron to help him, as the Captain was Arbiter of his Succession (he has a lot of important friends) and helped in the recent civil conflict, but the Klingon leader keeps distant as the debt he owes to a human doesn't fit with his propaganda. Picard tells the functionary that if Gowron won't help him he could always ask someone else in the Empire. I assume that Gowron's much-contested rule is still weak and he doesn't want his former ally approaching other factions.
The Klingon captain tries to make Picard and Data uncomfortable, which seems to be common when Federation people travel on Klingon ships (they are awful hosts). Picard brazens it out as this is the best way of dealing with them. Picard tries to sleep, but with Data sharing his quarters and looming over him it's difficult. After news of Sarek's death Picard feels the mission has changed as he still has Sarek's memories and must not only send Sarek's message of paternal love to Spock, but also tell him his father has died. Picard doesn't say it, but in a way he's the last vestige of Sarek. Data asks why Spock wouldn't be logical about his father's death, and Picard points out that it's not that simple to remove emotional barriers especially when you're too late to change things. I wonder how much Picard is thinking of his own relationship with his deceased father? This is a situation where Picard feels the emotions on both sides and it's all sadness.

Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
When Picard first tells Riker about Spock and Sarek's difficult relationship they both pause, presumably contemplating their own father issues. After all Picard's deceased father seemed to be a Luddite vineyard owner and Riker's dad is a jerk. Riker doesn't try to protect Picard from this super dangerous mission, but then the orders came from an Admiral.
Riker takes command when Picard leaves and has his own investigation into The Mystery of the Twisted Metal Fragments. Riker gets very irritated with the fussy Quartermaster of the scrapyard. I don't really understand the ranks but I'd guess the Quartermaster and Riker are at a similar level? I know the Quartermaster is a jerk, but it isn't as though Riker never became a stickler for protocol when he decided he didn't like someone. Riker decides Troi can deal with the Quartermaster after she suggests a more submissive approach, he's gleeful at palming this off onto her. That is being a bad ex, Riker, you suck at this! I imagine Troi was the social secretary in their relationship. Riker acts decisively regarding the missing ships where the Quartermaster is just shocked. I guess that makes Riker victorious in this pissing contest.

Does Not Compute
It turns out Data's ears aren't detachable and Dr Crusher considers how her team will change his pigmentation to appear Romulan. When Data created a child she chose which species to look like, so surely Data has something that can accomplish this? Of course he's unlikely to have a Romulan setting.
This feels familiar
When sharing quarters on the Klingon ship Data offers Picard the bed-shelf because he doesn't sleep. Then he stands there, looming silently over Picard, which is super uncomfortable. Even when Data turns so he doesn't seem to be looking at Picard it's still too weird to be a good sleeping environment. The scene is kind of funny, but the framing of the shot echoes Picard's earlier scene with Sarek. Data asks about Picard's changed demeanour after Sarek's death and wonders whether a Vulcan would even be saddened by his father's death. Data would fit in well with Vulcans I think (he is basically the Spock stand-in for this series), but he was designed by a human and so that presumably shapes his aspirations. When they're on Romulus Data looks the part but Picard says he still moves like an android (well, duh). Data may have a lot of files about Romulans, but he doesn't have the knack for blending in or making normal conversation.

Future Is Better
I think this is the first time we see the process behind inter-species disguise/transformation. Dr Crusher considers the challenge that Data poses and measures Picard very exactly for facial prosthetics. She also mentions that Picard and Data will have to go see the ship's barber to get their hairpieces designed. I wonder if this is a way of acknowledging the work of the real hair and makeup artists who are obviously an important part of the show? If so, that's really nice. Having said that prosthetics and hairpieces don't sound very techy. I know that such transformations are used later in TNG and DS9, but they always seemed more surgical to me. Plus prosthetics don't explain when characters (Quark and Dukat for example) have their physical features reduced in size.
Perrin comments that it's been a long time since she's tasted real mint tea as the Vulcan version of mint isn't recognisable. Don't they have replicators on Vulcan? I mean Picard hasn't made that tea out of real mint that's grown somewhere on the ship, he's just got it from the replicator. I could see Vulcans deciding that flavours are illogical though, so maybe their replicators aren't good at making things taste like real food? One look at Perrin's outfit shows Vulcan fashion is still super illogical.

Girl Talk
I'm glad that Perrin appears again, and we get a brief follow up on her situation. We see how caring for her dying husband has hurt her, although he's pretty dismissive of her. She doesn't ever complain or seek support on her own behalf and her anger towards Spock is rooted in protectiveness of Sarek. She almost seems to feel things on Sarek's behalf. I wonder if this is a comment on the emotional labour often performed by wives in traditional marriages? We know very little of Perrin outside her wife role, except that she likes and misses mint tea.
Riker gets Troi to deal with the Quartermaster after she suggests being more placatory; this whole thing feels not great, even if it is meant to be funny. Partly because it seems like a more feminine approach and Riker just dumps the task on Troi without even considering her advice. Partly it's that he's just too gleefully smug about doing it. There's also the fact that Troi is fairly explicitly being used as eye candy (which admittedly makes subtext into super blunt text). The Quartermaster is condescending as he identifies Troi as a "handsome woman" after sizing her up and it's tacky that he basically calls her a distracting tactic right to her face. What I don't understand is why there wouldn't be any attractive ladies in that area? What does the location have to do with the gender or appearance of people there? Also why would the non-human Quartermaster have the same standards of beauty? Troi is left to listen to the Quartermaster and act fascinated; emotional labour as women's work again.
The visiting Admiral is a woman; she is decisive and does nothing awful. That's pretty good for an Admiral. I don't know much about her but she seems pretty cool. I think she's my favourite Admiral so far.

Klingon Differences
Picard is relying on Gowron's gratitude for a) being his arbiter of succession and b) exposing the secret alliance between his rivals and the Romulans, thus ensuring he won the recent civil war. Worf says that Gowron has rewritten Klingon history to emphasise his own actions and ignore the contributions of Picard, the Enterprise and the Federation. While this might not be very fair it is a shrewd political move as Klingon ideas of honour and worthiness are based on perceived strength and bluster (hmm, I wonder what that is like -_-). Gowron is downplaying the help he got and distancing himself from his former allies. The only thing that's weird about this is that Worf refers to it as history, when it happened at most a few months ago. Although initially inconvenient as Picard can't just ask Gowron for a ship, it turns out he can influence Gowron by suggesting he'll contact one of Gowron's rivals (non-interference is only a problem when the Captain thinks it should be). True Klingon history (or y'know recent events) shows that whoever Picard supports is victorious.

When Is This?
So this is series 5 episode 7 and Picard says it's been about a year since he mind-melded with Sarek in series 3 episode 23, meaning all of series 4 is less than a year long. The O'Briens got married in Data's Day (s4, ep11) and their child (Molly remains unnamed) is born a month early in Disaster (s5, ep 5). Now it could be that Keiko was pregnant when she got married (might explain her fluctuating moods), but it still feels like time has gone a bit odd. Especially when you consider that Worf refers to Gowron rewriting Klingon "history" by erasing Picard's part in the events of Redemption (Parts 1 and 2), which were only 7 episodes ago. Let's not even get into how old Worf's son is (not relevant here, but another source of temporal confusion). Of course they are travelling interstellar distances faster than light speed, so time onboard is probably pretty screwy compared to anyone in a fixed position. Plus a year doesn't have to be 365.25 Earth days, they're in space! There's probably a standard year-unit based on somewhere/something else entirely.

The End
Look it's Spock! He was in this shadowy cave the whole time, just waiting for a suitably dramatic moment to step forward.

Judging by the initial screen this is the first episode after Gene Roddenberry died.