Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The X-Files--"My Struggle III"

     I am a huge fan of The X-Files. Even though I felt the tenth season was uneven, I was excited to see something new for the show. The prospect of an even longer eleventh season is equally exciting with the caveat the weakest parts of the previous season were the mythology episodes. So imagine the trepidations over the first episode of the eleventh season not only delving exclusively on the mythology, but depending heavily on exposition tossing the mythology we know on its ear.
     Scully suffers a seizure as she is presumably being contacted by her son, William. It turns out everyone is looking for William. Mulder, Cigarette Smoking Man with Monica Reyes, never before seen Syndicate members Mr. Y and Erika, and probably others. The season is young. The Cigarette smoking Man and Mr. Y have competing agendas. The former wants to poison humanity with the spartan virus. Mr. Y prefers a less brutal colonization plan. I do not know. The waters are not terribly muddied. This is why the mythology episodes worked so poorly in the tenth season.
     The worst part? The Cigarette smoking Man tells Skinner he is Williams' real father. He artificially inseminated Scully during the 2009 episode "En Ami." Did you hear that giant roar? It was the collective screams of agony from millions of X-Philes. Mine, included. I assume the Cigarette Smoking Man is lying but if he is not, William's paternity is the cheapest twist in the series history. Not to mention the Mulder family tree is the most perverse around.
     The bottom line--”My Struggle III” is a bad start. It is difficult to follow who is who and what their agenda is through all the manic car chases and reams of explanatory dialogue that nulls= and voids all previous mythology. I will not bail on the first episode, but I am equally not excited to see what comes next. Loyalty to a brand can be painful.
     Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Doctor Who--"Twice Upon a Time"

     I am a little late in reviewing the 2017 Christmas special. The holiday season can be unpredictable when last minute plan changes and health issues crop up. But better late than never and definitely worth the wait. Here we go!
     The episode begins with Twelfth, still refusing to regenerate, arriving at the South Pole where he encounters the First, who is also refusing to regenerate for his own reasons. They are soon joined by a displaced and confused World War I British captain who was moments prior in a standoff with a German Soldier. All three are forcibly taken on board on an alien ship where they encounter Bill, evidently alive and well. The glass-like aliens who run the ship agree to let them go if the captain can be returned to the time of his death in the stand off.
     Such is a no go, so everyone escapes the ship and eventually flees in First's TARDIS. Twelfth seeks the help of Rusty the Rogue Dalek—ugh, that is painful to type—to discover what these aliens are all about. They take people at the moment of their deaths and upload their memories. Since the captain was supposed to die but did not, the universe is no longer in proper order. Deciding nothing evil is going on, First and Twelfth agree to return the captain to the standoff. However, Twelfth moves the arrival ahead a bit to be interrupted by the Christmas Truce of 1914 when German and British soldiers began singing “Silent Night” and eventually celebrated Christmas together. The captain survives. Lucky thing, too. He is either the father or grandfather of the Brigadier.
     The question running through the minds of the First and Twelfth—where would the universe be without them—is answered. They both need to regenerate and keeping doing their work. The philosophical question of why good is not a solid survival trait, yet good prevails is a heady one, but the answer appears to be because there is always someone willing to fight for the good. With the realization he needs to continue on as a force for good, Twelfth regenerates into Thirteen.
     Hello, Jodie Whittaker! It will be a long, tough wait until the fall premiere of the eleventh series.
     “Twice Upon a Time” is definitely a treat for Classic Who fans. The banter between First and Twelfth is delightful humorous, as does First's old fashioned chauvinism towards Bill. There is the reference to the Brigadier’s family tree and mentions of nicknames given to various incarnations of the doctor over the years because of his exploits. Those are all well and good. But there was not much point to more recent references to Twelfth's time. Rusty and Bill are just thrown in. Nardole's appearance is brutal since he means he has been killed by the Cybermen. Seeing Jenna Coleman again is great, but it is not any different than Karen Gillan's brief appearance before Eleven regenerated four years ago. Maybe I am being harsh, but those pre-regeneration scenes did not resonate quite like Ten or eleven's.
    Nevertheless, I enjoyed “Twice Upon a Time.” Peter Capaldi's run is criminally underrated. He really started coming into the character during the last series and a half. I would have liked for him to continue on for another series or two for a chance to shine even brighter. Alas, it is time for a new era. The show has the cleanest slate it has enjoyed since 2005. I am curious to see what the powers that be will make of it.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Orville--"Mad Idolatry"

     I am a few days late reviewing the first season finale of The Orville, but for good reason. I felt a little sick Thursday night. The ill feeling lead to a day long stint in the emergency room on Friday. The whole ordeal culminated in my sleeping through most of Saturday. Aside from a little weariness, I am okay now. So I finally watched “Mad Idolatry” this morning. What did I think of it? The episode is definitely a strong end to the inaugural season.
     The crew encounters a planet on the edge of uncharted space which suddenly appears out of thin air. Greyson leads a small team down to investigate. There is a small tribe of Bronze Age humans living there. While seeking a better look at them, Grayson spooks a little girl. She injures herself fleeing. After Grayson heals her with a medical device, the little girl assumes Grayson is a godlike figure.
    The planet phases out again to return in eleven days. The crew waits for its return to gauge the level of cultural contamination Grayson caused. When the planet reappears, seven centuries have passed. The situation is roughly the Middle Ages of Europe with Grayson worship substituting for Christianity with a brutal church subjugating its followers. Grayson is upset by the damage she has caused, but I unable to convince the church to acknowledge the truth of her status because they have a good thing going.
     On the planet's third reappearance, it is the equivalent of modern day Earth. The religion surrounding Grayson has persisted. There appears to be non-violent conflicts over what should be taught in schools and violent terrorist acts elsewhere. Grayson wants to go down to the planet and remain there to fix the mess. Isaac offers to go instead because of his millions of years lifespan. When the planet reappears eleven days later, the futuristic people return Isaac while claiming he did nothing to change their ways. It was all a natural progression.
     There is a subplot in which Mercer and Grayson play around with the idea of getting back together. He wants to, but she nixes the idea. Maybe she still does not trust herself not to make big mistakes. Whatever the case, I hope her refusal ends the will they/will they not get back together question for a long time.
      “Mad Idolatry' does not break much new ground. The idea of a planet moving faster through time while building a religion around something out of place is a well worn science fiction trope. No, VOY did not originate the concept with “Blink of an Eye,” although the idea of sending down a relatively ageless crew member did originate there. There is no villain here. Just a philosophical question about the development of civilization. Backward beliefs are simply part of h development. I liked the analogy religion, like the medical device Grayson used to heal the little girl, is a tool that can be used for good or evil, but is not necessarily good or evil in and of itself.
   Star Trek's prime directive, though? It is pure evil. The code of non-interference would call for Grayson to let the little girl die. I appreciated the jab at the muddled morality that has developed around the prime directive over the years.
     “Mad Idolatry” does not tread a whole lot of new ground. There is no real villain to speak of even though various time periods have their antagonists. The episode is thought provoking in terms of where bad ideas fit in with the development of civilization. I am not too thrilled with the idea one should not sweat the unpredictable consequences of one's actions because the results are part of a progression of events, but at least it made me think about the unintended consequences of a seemingly altruistic action. It is true you can never really tell where it will all lead to in the end.
     “Mad Idolatry' was not particularly innovative, but I liked it. The episode was a solid end to a consistently good first season. We must wait until most likely the fall for the second season. It is going to be a long, anxious wait.
      Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Orville--"New Dimensions"

     Here we are at the penultimate episode of The Orville's first season. If the time since the show's premiere seems short, hold on to the sensation. The show has been renewed, but it is not likely to return until fall 2018. We have a long wait ahead of us after next week's finale. It does not help one of the first season installments will be delayed until the second season.
     “New Dimensions” revisits the frequent theme of crew members struggling to believe in themselves. In this case, it is mercer and LaMarr facing self-reflection. Mercer is filled with self-doubt when he learns Grayson pulled strings for him to be awarded a command. He learns this while she is advocating for LaMarr, who is brilliant, but a goof off, to be promoted to chief engineer. LaMarr does not want the job because of the responsibility. Naturally, both Mercer and LaMarr face a crisis in which they both prove their capabilities to themselves.
     “New Dimensions” is not a bad episode, but it rehashes elements that have gone on before. A spacial anomaly causes yet another incident for the crew to overcome. Yet another crew member is torn up with self-doubt, but is proven worthy in the end. Mercer keeps flip flopping between a capable commander and a whiny, insecure teenager. Hopefully, the time until next season's premiere will give the writing staff a chance to develop some different character themes with which to work. The special effects were quite good. We got plenty of views of a 2-dimensional civilization and scenes of a shuttle towing the Orville to safety.
     The humor often falls flat here. I laughed out loud a couple times, but generally the humor was thin. For instance, Yafit excuses mercer of racism because laMarr is being considered for chief engineer even though he is next in line for the job. The plot line serves no other purpose that I can discern other than to be funny, but it really is not. Perhaps it is fluffy filler. Whatever the case, I did not see the point.
     Yes, I note the TNG homage. LaForge was promoted from the comm to chief engineering the same as LaMarr has been. It is a neat nod to one of The Orville's primary influences.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Orville--"Firestorm"

     The Orville was renewed for a second season. But with the good news comes some disappointing news. The twelfth episode of the first season is being delayed until next season. There is no official word on why the change will take place, but speculation is the episode hints at the will they/won't they get back together dynamic between Mercer and Grayson. It might have been fine for a one season wonder to feature so an episode, but not one that will go on for at least two seasons. It feels like a weak explanation, but maybe we will find out more details later. The bottom line is there are only two episodes left until—i assume--fall 2018.
    Actually, I have some other disappointing news to deliver. “Firestorm” is highly moody and entertaining for all but the final five minutes. It was dark and scary enough to be a Halloween episode. With a better ending, the episode might contend for my favorite. Alas, even a cameo by the great Robert Picardo could not save the episode from a script that fizzled out at the last act.
     When the ship enters a plasma storm, engineering is severely damaged. Alara is sent down to use her super strength to light debris off a trapped crew member. But when a fire breaks out, Alara freezes in fear. The crewman dies because of her momentary hesitation. Fire turns out to be a phobia of hers from the time she was nearly trapped in one as an infant. She does not have much time to beat herself up over the issue as the crew begin battling their typical fears come to life—killer clowns, giant spiders, bottomless pits, and surgery. Is there, as the crew suspects, an alien life form on board terrorizing them?
     No, that would have been pretty cool. Maybe an alien psychological parasite living off fear or something along those lines. But no. it is actually simulation Alara runs to test her reaction to common phobias. She is never in any real danger beyond the health risks extreme fear might cause. So there are no consequences. The episode might as well have been a dream.
       The cop out is a shame because the episode is great outside of it. The clown is terrifying even for someone like me who is not bothered by them. Giant tarantulas are creatures I would wet my pants to see chasing me, so top marks for that fear being well presented. But then, the whole thing deflates. I would much rather see Alara match wits and defeat an alien who has incapacitated the crew. Then again, 'Firestorm” is the second episode so far in which Alara faced crippling doubts about her command abilities only to triumph in the end. Twice in nine episodes? Perhaps in such a short period of time, another aspect of her character could have been explored instead?
     “Firestorm” is the first episode of The Orville I am awarding a mediocre rating. As I said above, but for a better plot twist, the episode might have been my favorite. But I am disappointing by the ending. It is the first episode to not be written by Seth McFarlane. Hopefully, the lackluster results are not a sign only he is good at writing for the show.
     Rating: ** (out of 5)

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Orville--"Cupid's Dagger"

   With so many episodes immersed in darn elements it was inevitable The Orville would delve into excessive, screwball comedy. I cannot say I was looking forward to it, but I wound up laughing out loud more than I have in any previous episode. Much of it had to be with guest star Rob Lowe reprising his brief role as Darulio, the alien with whom Garyson cheated on mercer. Yes, that was Lowe in the first episode.
     Darulio arrives as the only archeologist who can determine the DNA on an ancient artifact discovered on a disputed planet. Two alien races lay claim. The DNA could identify which race has original rights to it. Darulio's presence would cause enough problems between Mercer and Grayson as is, but to make matters worse, he is secretly in heat. So Mercer and Grayson compete for Darulio's affection like two lovesick teenagers. Meanwhile, Yafit and Finn, who are also affected by Darulio, hook up.
     The two alien races lose patience with the neglect they suffer while the captain and first officer compete for Darulio. They eventually decide to forgo any results of the DNA test and just fight it out with their fleets. To make things right, Darulio uses his pheromones to compel the leaders of both factions fall in love. As the pheromones wear off in a few days, the solution is temporary. But when the DNA test reveals a common ancestor, they must share the planet. Their resolution wound up more peacefully than Yafit and Finn. She did not take the truth of the situation well while still under the influence.
     The resolution was predictable from the moment the pheromone was revealed to be the cause of the infatuation outbreak, but that is okay. The main focus of “Cupid's Dagger” was on the comedy. The episode delivered on laughs. I say that as someone who does not care much for this sort of over the top humor/ Character based comedy is better than situational based, but whatever works at the time. Speaking of character based, Yafit earns some character development. He went from obnoxious comic relief to a sympathetic character. He genuinely does carry a torch for Finn..
     So I enjoyed an episode I had not expected to like based on the previews. Maybe that meant 'Cupid's Dagger' cleared a low bar, but I do not think so. It was a solid outing. Because it was a solid outing, it soothed some fears the show might be feat or famine with me enjoying the science fiction heavy stories while feeling disappointed by the more sitcom styled stories. Maybe not.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Orville--"Into the Fold"

     Good news, Orvillians! The announcement came today The Orville was renewed for a second season. I am not certain of all the details, but I assume the renewal means a full, 22-24 episode season. At least I am hopeful for that many. While some episodes were weaker than others, there has yet to be one I would call bad. Tonight's is no exception. I rank up there with the best for its successful mix of tension, violence, and heart. Now there is a heck of a trifecta.
     “Into the Fold” introduces us to Finn's two young sons, Todd and Marcus. While the Orville is in dry dock for repairs, Finn plays to take them on vacation to an amusement park planet. Malloy bows out unexpectedly of acting as their shuttle pilot, but Isaac fills in. He looks forward to studying human familial relationships. He is in for a bumpy ride. The kids are unruly brats for one, and they contribute to the shuttle crashing after it is drawn through a spatial fold.
     The shuttle is broken in half before the crash. Finn happens to be in the back at the time, so she is separated from the other three. She is also kidnapped and dragged back to an apartment by an alien named Drogen. He holds her captive even after learning she needs to find her children. This is bad for everyone, because there are cannibals out there.
     Finn's captivity and eventual escape are intense plot elements, but the emphasis—not to mention best parts—are Isaac's interaction with Todd and Marcus. While he does not understand humans or think much of them, he adapts quickly to keeping the kids safe and calm while working to send out a distress signal. Their bonding comes with some sweet moments, such as when Isaac learns holding a small child's hand helps him not to be afraid.
     The alien resorted to cannibalism when a biological agent infected their water supply. Naturally, the youngest of Finn's sons becomes infected in order to add a ticking clock to the plot. It was necessary for the sake of drama, but it does feel tacked on at the last minute. Frankly, our heroes falling under siege by the cannibals before the Orville rescues them probably would have been nail biting enough.
     While “Into the Fold” features some cute moments between Isaac and the kids, those are contrasted with a considerable amount of violence. Finn kills Drogen in order to escape, first by stabbing him and then shooting him with his own gun when she cannot over power him even with his knife wound. Some fans are already debating the morality of killing a man who believed he was helping her, but I say it was self-defense. He was holding her prisoner against her will and was not going to let her go. Finn even cuts herself with the knife in a ruse to initiate her escape. The shoot out in the end involved dozens of cannibals swarming the downed shuttle like zombies.
     Contrast the violence yet again with the humor. In the 25th century, Barry Manilow is considered a musical genius. Isaac settles a dispute over a hand held video game between Todd and Marcus by throwing it up in the air and shooting it. He casually refers to the older one as 'the less intelligent” without offense intended. The comic relief comes at just the right intervals in what is otherwise a dark episode.
     The episode is dark, but good. The episodes focusing on a couple characters at a time rather than the entire crew solving a problem are turning out great. From the previews, I was expecting a Finn-centric episode, but it turned out to be Isaac-centric instead. I have no problem with that. Nor, surprisingly, a problem with children playing such prominent roles. Child actors can make or break a story's execution, but these two did a fine job. As did everyone else.
      Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Orville--"Majority Rule"

     There was no new episode of The Orville last week. I definitely missed my fix. The ratings are holding steady with impressive numbers for a rookie series. It looks like I am not the only one who digs the show. Tonight's episode is further example of why I like it so much. It was thought provoking while not being preachy, with a solid mix of funny and creepy.
     The ship is sent to a planet roughly equivalent to 21st century Earth to search for an undercover anthropological team with whom the Union lost contact a month prior. A four man team goes searching on the planet. LaMarr, while teasing Alara, simulates dry humping a statue and is filmed in the act. The video is uploaded and receives so many down votes, LaMarr is arrested and forced to go on a televised apology tour. If he cannot convince enough his apology is sincere, he will be essentially lobotomized by the removal of bad impulses.
     The plot is a satire of online sites like Facebook and Reddit as well as the growing impression opinion is equal to facts. LaMarr is saved from the lobotomy when Isaac floods the [planet’s version of the internet with rumors LaMarr is the sole support for his 90 year old grandmother, fake photos of him as a cute kid, and a fictitious video of him as a soldier coming home and greeted excitedly by his dog. These are all examples of things that would score a high number of likes on social media. Yet none of it has any bearing on the facts surrounding LaMarr's crime—in as much as it is a crime. Opinion makes fact irrelevant.
     Also note Isaac is a bot spreading fake information on social media in order to influence a vote to go the way our heroes desire.
     “Majority Rule” is a good mix of comedy and horror. It is incredibly difficult to show a character dry humping a statue in one scene, then revealing the horrific effects of a lobotomy on one of the anthropologists our heroes were sent to rescue a few minutes later. (They obliviously fell a foul of popular opinion as well. One was killed trying to escape lobotomy.) The plot is pure Trek at its best in a way we have not seen since the best seasons of TNG. They even threw in Gene Roddenberry's absurd notion every planet will develop along the same lines as Earth but it was made a plausible matter of probabilities.
     Some fans and critics noted the similarities between “Majority Rule” and an episode of the anthology series Black Mirror. I have never seen the show, so I cannot say it taints my views on the episode. If someone familiar with the episode in question thinks 'Majority Rule” is a rip off or homage, they may do so. I cannot offer an argument as to how the two episodes compare. I have heard good things about Black mirror, though. Maybe I will check it out in the near future.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Orville--"Krill"

     “Krill” is a glimpse into the archenemy alien race established in the premiere episode. The krill are religious zealots that believe their aggressive actions towards other races are moral because other races are inferior species with no souls. Upon the establishment of the Krill as violent religious fundamentalists, I was expecting a brutal critique of Christianity and or Islam. Seth McFarlane has been tough on both religions in his other shows. He may still go that route, but I am happy to say the subject was dealt with in a thought-provoking, but not preachy manner.
     The Orville responds to a distress call from a colony under attack by the Krill. The krill ship is cleverly destroyed even though it outgunned the Orville. A Krill shuttle is captured, and the Union orders Mercer and Malloy to use it to go undercover as Krill to copy the Krill bible, the Anhkana. The mission's purpose is to study the religious text with the hope of finding common ground between Krill and humans.
     Mercer and Malloy use holographic technology to appear as Krill. If there is a weak point to the episode, it is the comedic banter in which the two engage in order to pass themselves off. The names Chris and Devon, the 20th century pop culture jokes, and the awkwardness in general threaten to take me out of the main plot. Considering how dark the plot becomes as the episode goes on, I guess McFarlane that laying on goofy humor would balance out the mood. But he went overboard.
     The dark plot elements involve the realization the Krill are about to destroy a human colony of 100,000 people with a mega bomb. Obviously, the mission changes to destroy the bomb. But Mercer discovers the Krill have children on board, he cannot bring himself to destroy the ship. Appreciate his quandary. Mercer just now realizes he has killed who knows how many children on the Krill ships he has destroyed. The kids are not his enemy. But then again, there are probably tens of thousands of human children on the targeted colony.
     Mercer and Malloy surmise since the krill live on a planet of perpetual night, they would be vulnerable to UV rays. They plan to corral the kids into their classroom, destroy its lights, and then blow the other lights to full power. It works. The kids are spared, but all the adults save the teacher are burnt to a crisp like vampires in the son. The mission of peace turns sour as Mercer arranges for the kids' safe return to Krill. He is reminded by the teacher that if the kids were not his enemy before, they are now.
     “Krill" is an interesting episode that establishes some series lore. It was both action oriented and thought-provoking with a surprisingly evenhanded take on religious zealotry. But there were many dark elements, such as a severed human hand stabbed during a religious ceremony and the burning death of the Krill adult crew. A lot of really dumb humor attempted to lighten the mood, but probably went too far considering the moral mercer is grappling with is the mass murder of children versus saving his own people. Heady stuff that needs comic relief, but not sitcom level silliness.   
Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Orville--"Pria"

     The Orville takes its first shot at a time travel episode. It is such a standard concept in science fiction, it is ripe for parody, but difficult to make origin. With a guest star as hot as Charlize Theron, there was a concern she might have been intended as a distraction from plot holes. But I am now thrilled to tell you that is not the case.
     The Orville receives a distress call from Pria, the pilot of a ship being dragged into a collapsing star. When she comes safely on board, Mercer grows infatuated with her. Greyson is suspicious, either because they know nothing about Pria or jealous because Mercer is fond of her. He is not thrilled with her suspicions, especially after Pria miraculously saves them from a dark matter storm.
     Of course, Greyson is right to be suspicious. Pria is actually a criminal from the 29th century who returns to the past, steals unique items, and sells them in the 29th century as antiques. The crew was supposed to die in the dark matter storm. She plans to take them into the future to sell the ship. Mercer manages to take over the device she is using to control the ship through Isaac and escapes into their own time. Once back, Mercer orders the time portal destroyed, causing Pria to fade away.
     In the side story, Malloy teaches Isaac about practical jokes by secretly placing Mr. Potato Head parts on the robot's head. Isaac gets him back by amputating Malloy's left leg while he sleeps. Malloy is angry over Isaac going way too far in retaliation, but eventually decides it was the coolest practical joke he has ever seen. Isaac learns about humor in a far more brutal way then data ever did. It is an amusing segment, especially the visual of Isaac as Mr. Potato Head.
     The high point of “Pria” is the exploration of Mercer's trust issues because of Greyson cheating on him when they were married. He lets his guard down to let Pria in, but she is manipulating him. We feel sympathy for his hurtful anger in the end. The best part is how it is left up to the audience to decide how much of Greyson's actions uncovering the truth about Pria were motivated by duty to the ship and how much were lingering affection for her ex-husband. Considering she beat the living snot out of Pria, the latter seems likelier.
     The special effects are fantastic. “Pria” is the most visually stunning episode so far. From the collapsing star to the dark matter storm and the time portal, it is all epic. The intensive special effects, which promote a larger than life feel, contrasted well with the personal drama which caught the lion's share of attention.
     “Pria” is another solid outing for The Orville. The series is still young, but has yet to air a weak episode in spite of what most of the critics are saying. I can only assume they are expecting something edgy and controversial rather than the fun adventure and good humor the show delivers instead. Whatever the critics' hang ups are, I am enjoying the series.
      Rating: *** (out of 5)