Saturday, December 31, 2011

Firefly--"Heart of Gold"

"Heart of Gold,” as in that hooker has one, is the most classically western themed episode to date. The bad guy is a local bigwig land owner who keeps everyone in town in grinding poverty. Like Miss Kitty, the local madam is the hero who stands up to him with the help of some wandering good Samaritans, in this case, the crew of Serenity. all that is needed is a quick draw contest in the center of town to hit just about every cliché there is.

The mustache twirling villain is Rance Burgess. He owns everything thing, including a high powered laser rifle, a mini-tank, and an alleged mandate from God. Did I say high powered laser rifle? It is actually a goofy looking Buck Rogers number with a red light for accurate targeting. It is not the goofiest thing he owns, either. That mini-tank of his is a cross between a four wheeler and a Prius. The climactic scene has mal chasing it down on horseback and jumping on board once the charge runs out on burgess’ gun. I gather this was an homage to the tank battle scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it felt like more of a parody. I was amused by it, so if the whole sequence was meant to be tongue in cheek, bravo. But mal has strong emotions at this point I will get into in a moment, so playing the chase and brief scuffle for laughs would deflate the high emotions.

Burgess and some of his men ride up to a brothel run by Nandi, a former companion who did not like the rigorous requirements of the job, so she started her own, unlicensed broothel. Burgress demands to see a prostitute named Petaline. Several of his thugs drag the very pregnant Metaline out so he can perform a DNA test on the unborn child. If it is his, he will come back for it--cutting it out of her belly, if he has to. Nanda requests help from Inara, who offers to pay the Serenity crew to intervene. Mal agrees to do the job for free. The pro bono offer is one of several hints in the episode mal has romantic feelings for Inara.

Mal sizes up Burgess at a big party he has thrown and decides they need to split. The gun, the tank, and the mandate from God are a bit too much for him. Not that his fear makes any sense. Mal has faced down the Alliance, Reavers, and Niska. Why is he so afraid of a forgettable A-team villain? Regardless, he offers to relocate the hookers to another planet, but Nanda refuses to leave. She has built this place up and created a “family’ for her girls. Mal admires her determination, so he changes his mind. The crew will face the nearly impossible odds of defending the brothel.

There is a lot of set up time before the siege begins. Simon tends to the about to give birth Petaline. Jayne takes early payment from one of the girls, if you know what I mean. Zoe and Wash talk about having a baby of their own. Shepherd offers spiritual counsel to several girls. But the biggest story is Mal. He begins talking to nanda as he sets up a defense. Their relationship quickly moves to sex. Just before they do, she tells him, ’I’m not her,” which is another hint mal has a thing for Inara. When Inara discovers mal and Nanda slept together, she puts on a brave face, but bursts into tears in private.

The brothel is betrayed by one of the girls who is, in a terribly degrading scene, forced to perform oral sex on burgess as proof she knows where a coman’s place is. Burgess and his men attackk early and manage to break their way into Petaline’s room after she has just has just given birth. In the ensuing shoot out, Nanda is fatally wounded. Enraged, mal goes after the escaping burgress in the tank chase I described above. When mal hauls Burgess back to the brothel, petalone shoots him dead personally, thereby freeing the town as well as her f”amily” and baby.

Back on Serenity, Mal expresses regret he could not save Nanda. Inara says she is grateful he could comfort her in her final night and remarks how closeknit a family atmosphere she had created at the brothel. Mal wants to talk about the romantic notions they have for each other, but Inara interrupts with the news she is leaving Serenity.

I have three bones to pick with “Heart of Gold.” Yhe first has already been addressed--burgess’ weapn and mini-tank are hard to take seriously. He is a worthy adversary, mind you. He is sadistic and crazy. But more effort should have been put into the weapons he weilds in order to maintain power over the people. An armored golf cart is not all that intimidating. Second, I can understand mal has feelings for inara. He risked his life to defend her honor in a fencing match and has come to her for counsel at times, but she has has never hinted at feelings for him. Why was she not upset about saffron marrying him or leaving him behind when Serenity was running out of oxygen or more fearful when niska held him prisoner? Certainly, as a Companion she can control her emotions well, but her reaction to Mal sleeping with nanda was out of the blue. Final point, the episode ended with the funeral for a friend of mal’s just like the previous. The repetition loses its impact.

I can cut “Heart of Gold” some slack, however. It is mostly action oriented. In that regard, it is highly entertaining. The script was written by Brett Matthews, who was an assistant to Joss Whedon three years out of college when he wrote it. There is a sense of, ’What he heck? We’re cancelled anyway. Let the kid write an episode.” “Heart of gold” was also nominated for a 2004 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, so it must have something going for it, no? Of course, it lost to Gollum’s Acceptance speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Firefly--"The Message"

“The Message” is a significant episode of Firefly in three ways. One, it was the final episode filmed, though not the last to air. The cast knew during filming the show had been cancelled, so the funeral scene which ends the episode has a double meaning. Two, creator Joss Whedon makes a cameo as one of the mourners. Finally, “The Message” was nominated for a 2004 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, short Form. Insult to injury--it not only lost, but lost to Gollum’s acceptance speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards. No wonder hardly anyone in science fiction cares about winning a Hugo these days.

The message begins with the crew on a space station gathering their mail. Among the bric a brac is a crate addressed to Mal and Zoe. They open it up to discover the well-preserved corpse of one of their old comrades from the war, Tracey. In a recorded message alongside the body, Tracey requests mal and zoe take him home, something he often longed for during the war. They set course for st. Albans to honor their fallen comrades’ final request.

Tracey is being pursued by a sadistic alliance officer named Womack. He threatens the postmaster until he reveals Serenity took Tracey’s corpse. Womack catches up with Serenity and fires upon it. The crew pleads ignorance, but has simon autopsy Tracey to find out why his body is so important. Tracey sits bolt upright and screams when the scalpel slices into his skin. He had been put into a deep coma as part of a black market organ smuggling scheme he was to deliver the organs to Ariel, but found a higher bidder. Now Womack is after him.

Womack pursues Serenity over the snowy mountains of St. Albans in some impressive special effects shots. Serenity manages to lose Womack in a cave, so they have some time to plot out their next move. Shepherd suggest there is something unusual about Womack and thinks they should let him onboard. Tracey, who had been hiding out of sight, overhears and thinks the crew is going to surrender him. He swipes a gun and shoots Wash. In response, Zoe shoots him. Wounded, but not out, he takes Kaylee hostage and heads for a shuttle. Added poignancy here, because Kaylee has clearly been infatuated with Tracey. Mal shoots Tracey once Kayleee is safely out of the way. They allow Womack onboard. Shepherd notes Womack is parsecs out of his jurisdiction and correctly guesses he is the mastermind of the organ smuggling operation. He leaves, noting Tracey is mortally wounded.

Indeed, he is. Tracey expresses regret his impulsiveness not only betrayed his former comrades, but that they were forced to kill him in order to save current comrades Wash and Kaylee. He requests they take him home to his family, which they do, and remain for the somber funeral. As the noted, the funeral marks the end of filming for Firefly, so it really is a sad occasion for fans.

Kaylee and Simon finally hook up after a strained beginning in which Simon falls awkwardly all over himself telling her how he feels, but in adversity insulting her instead. The running joke of Jayne proudly wearing an orange wool hat his mother knit for him is also a fan favorite.

“the Message” is a decent episode that would probably be more poignant if I had watched it in 2003 with melancholy over Firefly’s cancellation. As it is, I can only appreciate how it must have tugged browncoat heartstrings way back then. The powers that be certainly pulled out all the stops. The sets are more elaborate than usual, there is a big flashback to a battle sequence during the war, and the CGI chase between Serenity and Womack’s ship is impressive for television. Usually, a show will phone in the final filmed episode when it has been ingloriously cancelled. Firefly goes out in style instead.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Firefly--"Trash"

“Trash” features the return of Christina Hendricks as Saffron. She has a heist for the Serenity crew they reluctantly take on, but all is not as it seems. The episode is played mostly for laughs. In fact, the threadbare story seems to exist solely to get to the scene that bookends the episode--that of Mal, sitting naked on a rock in the middle of the desert, saying to himself, “Yeah, that went well.” The same scene does appear twice, in case you did not get enough of it the first time.

Mal meets up with a fellow ex-soldier and current smuggler named Monty. He is delivering stolen cargo to Mal and wants to introduce his new wife, Bridgette. Bridgette turns out to be Saffron. When she lets it slip she knows Mal’s name even though monty has not told her, he believes mal’s claim she is a con artist who also married him. Monty strands her with mal, who plans to strand her, too, but she offers him a job to buy her way off the planet. Mal refuses to listen.

Back on Serenity, Inara complains to Mal he has been obstructing her companion business as of late. The subsequent argument soon descends into personal insults in which inara calls Mal a petty thief. The insult inspires him to retrieve Saffron, who has been stuffed into one of the cargo boxes, to find out what her big heist is all about. The crew does not initially want to go along with anything saffron has planned, but once zoe punches her across the chin, it all works out. Sorta.

The plan is to steal a gun from the estate of a wealthy Earth as it was antique collector. It is a priceless artifect, but it will be complicated to get in and out of the estate withit. The plan is for Mal and Saffron to sneak in as party guests, steal the gun, and stuff it in the trash. Kaylee will then reprogram the garbage scow to fly to a remote location where they can retrieve the gun at their leisyre. It is a doublecross, however. Saffron was once married to the collector, and plays along with the idea Mal has rescued her after six years and returned her to him. Durran, Haymer, the happy hubby, calls the authorities unbeknownst to the two of them, and they barely get away before dumping the gun. Saffron double crosses mal yet again by stranding him naked in the desert and sabotaging Serenity so she can search the garbage scow herself. What she does not realize is the crew was ready for her. Inara was in on the caper the whole time. She has already found the gun, locks Saffron in the garbage scow for the authoritie to find, and rescues Mal.

There is a subplot in which River’s psychic abilities reveal Jayne’s betrayal from a couple episodes back. When he is injured helping Kaylee reprogram the garbage scow, Simon medically induces paralysis to rest his spine, then reveals he knows about the betrayal to the Alliance. Simon assures him he has taken an oath to do no harm, but river has not. She wryly tells Jayne she can kill him with her mind.

“Trash” is a frivolous, joke-laden romp. I am convinced someone came up with the idea of stranding mal in the desert naked and then wrote a script around it. No matter, though. The result is a fun episode. Young Christina Hendricks is hot, too. I am curious how much of her fight scenes are a stunt woman, however. A couple scenes from a distance obviously are, but some of the close ups look like her. She might be a tough little spitfire.

Rating: *** (out of 5)For those to whom it may appeal, Christina Hendricks knows how to use a gun.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Firefly--"War Stories"

I am not entirely certain how to classify “War Stories.” It starts out as a Wash-centric character study, then becomes a gruesome philosophical exploration of torture, and finally ends with a big shoot ‘em up in which the most unlikely characters are the toughest. It is by no means a bad mix. It is merely packed.

Wash is upset with the long history between Mal and Zoe. Their war experiences have forged a bond which makes Wash feel jeaoulous of and inadequate to Mal. He insists on going on a field assignment to prove himself, even suggesting a plan alteration. Zoe approaches mal with the idea, but he nixes it. Zoe later lies to Wash to spare his feelings. Under the circumstances, that is even worse. He sabotages the shuttle mal and zoe plan to use on a trip to sell the drugs they stole in the previous episode. The actual exchange is broken up when Niska’s men intervene. They kidnap Mal and Wash in revenge for cheating him out of money from the money from the drugs they were supposed to steal for him earlier.

Mal and Wash are tortured by Niska with electric shock, but the sequence is only a continuation of the torture theme. In the very first scene, simon examines River’s brain scans with Shepherd looking over his shoulder. Shepherd quotes from Chinese warrior/poet Xiang You, who said if you really want to know a man, torture him. Shepherd is implying River’s brain surgeries were a way of determining the real her. The scene cuts to Niska also citing Xiang Yu while torturing a disloyal subordinate. Later still, Niska alludes to Xiang ago when torturing Mal and wash.

Xiang Yu’s theory of personal discovery through torture is questionable. Certainly, in moments of desperation people will show you who they really are. But one cannot discount the fact people under extreme duress will say anything to earn relief. For every point, there is a counter point. Interesting that “War Stories” aired in December 2002 when the national debate over interrogating captured terrorists was just starting to get underway. Many yerrorists were being handed over to other countries likely to use torture as an interrogation technique. The famous Justice Department memo defining advanced interrogation techniques had been made public the previous August.

We can bypass all that, however. “War Stories” does not preach one way or the other. In fact, the first scenes of the electroshock torture are played for overt laughs, but with a serious undertone. Mal realizes wash is weak, so to keep him from breaking, he taunts him that his emotional bond with Zoe is far stronger than his. He even told Zoe not to marry wash. Perhaps she and mal she sleep together as the last logical step in their relationship. The anger keeps wash focused on something else so he does not break.

Realizing something is wrong, Zoe heads to the meeting site and discovers clues pointing to Niska having kidnapped Mal and Wash. She travels to his space station in order to pay off what he has lost. Niska says the money is only enough to win the freedom of one. He expects Zoe to be tortured with the moral dilemma of choosing, but she does not hesitate to pick Wash. Niska cuts off Mal’s left ear to take with them. They leave to the sounds of Mal’s screams of pain. The severed ear is the most graphic thing we have seen so far, but the torture does not end there. Further action sequences are interspersed with scenes of thin tendrils penetrating Mal’s torso and his being pinched with wire cutters. Not the most pleasant of viewing experience.

Zoe and Wash plan to rescue Mal by force. The rest of the crew joins them, albeit Jayne as the last straggler. The rescue is a big firefight in which mal is able to escape his torturers, who are so overconfident at his depleted condition, they do not restrain him. He cuts loose to show Niska the real him. We also learn the “real” selves of two other characters. Shepherd knows how to use a gun. So does River, who sneaks along and intervenes to save her new friend Kaylee by taking out three armed men with one well aimed shot. River is an expert killing machine, too.

If that was not enough, we have some hot lezbo action between Inara and a local politician. Inara reveals she rarely takes on same sex clients, but will when they can fill a need in her, too. I do not think the revelation is so much an admission of bisexuality so much as a cynicism regarding the men she has to serve. Her warning to the rest of the crew is not to ogle her client, as though mean’s obsession with the physical is growing tiresome for her. Jayne ogles her anyway, and begins the “I’ll be in my bunk” phrase that is still a popular euphemism for yanking it like a monkey in a mango tree.

There is a lot going on in “War Stories,” but it is all compelling enough to not get lost in. secondary characters get a shine to shine with some pretty interesting revelations thrown in, to boot. Wash mans up in a big hurry thanks to Mal, even if much of his efforts were tough love. “War Stories” is not an easy to episode to watch because of the torture scenes. It is true mosyt is implied or lightened up with dialogue, but there are some scenes I had to wince at--and I am a tough little cuss.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Firefly--"Ariel"

“Ariel” is a pivotal episode in which we learn three important things. One, exactly what happened to river during the time she was institutionalized. Two, Jayne is a royal jackass. Finally, that the family ties of the crew are stronger than previously thought. These three points are dealt with as a nifty caper unfolds.

Serenity has two make a two day layover on an Alliance controlled medical facility on Ariel so that Inara can have a routine medical exam and be recertified as a Companion. Because she is a high class hooker and all. Shortly before the crew’s arrival on Ariel, there is a violent incident in which river takes offense to Jayne insulting her brother at the dinner table and slices him with a knife. Jayne demands Mal dump them off the ship, but Mal refuses to comply. He does, however, warn simon that he needs to get river under control. Simon concedes river is getting worse.

While Inara is gone, the crew twiddle their thumbs wondering when a new job may come along. Simon interrupts and says he has one for them. He wants them to help him smuggle river into a medical facility for a thorough scan. In exchange, he will give them a list of valuable drugs they can steal from the pharmacy. This is where the nifty caper aspect comes in. Kaylee and Wash paint an old shuttle to look like a flying ambulance. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne will pose as EMT transporting deceased patients to the morgue. Simon and river will be drugged into appearing dead. Once they are in a place where they can be safely revived, Simon will make scans of river while Jayne watches over the two. Mal and Zoe will raid the pharmacy.

The complication comes when Jayne, while Simon and river are still in la la land, to turn them in to the Alliance for the reward. Simon has time to scan river. He discovers she has had numerous brain surgeries. The result of these operations has been to remove River’s ability to control her emotions. As the three of them attempt to leave the hospital, the alliance marshals arrest of them. The marshal Jayne had contacted plans to charge him with aiding federal fugitives and keep the reward for himself. The three break free thanks largely to Jayne and are pursued by the Blue Hand Men making their second appearance. Mal and zoe, figuring something has gone wrong since the three missed the rendesvous time, rescue them at the last minute.

Back on Serenity, simon is grateful to Jayne for the rescue. He has no clue Jayne betrayed him and river, but Mal does. Mal knocks Jayne out with a wrench and throws him in the airlock. He considers the betrayal of any crewmember a personal one. Jayne begs for his life, but quickly resigns himself to being spaced. As his last request, he wants mal to lie about why he has been killed. Mal senses the request is a sign of remorse and spares him--this time.

“Ariel” is a good episode. The drug stealing caper is a McGuffin best ignored, especially considering the crew has already returned drugs they unknowingly stole in the first episode. One can rationale those were returned because they were meant for a poor community and these drugs were in a fancy hospittal in the midst of a big, wealthy city. You can also speculate the drugs do not matter to the crew in the first place. The theft is a way to “justify” helping Simon and River. Considering mal’s loyalty and Jayne’s remorse over his betrayal, I would not be too surprised if the family aspect of the crew’s relation made the latter the more plausible explanation. Whatever the case, Jayne is more humanized, mal comes across as more of a leader than ever before, and river’s arc is advanced. There are no disappointments with any of that.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Firefly--"Out of Gas"

“Out of Gas” recounts the origin for Firefly. The story is told, occasionally awkwardly, in flashbacks from three different eras. Not all the first meetings will mal and/or Zoe are created equal, but fans get what they need to know. I suppose that is enough.

The episode begins with Serenity adrift in space, life support draining, and Mal all alone bleeding from an abdominal wound. How Mal got to that point is told in flashbacks to three different eras. One, how he and Zoe assembled the crew. Two, the disaster that caused Serenity to become adrift and its immediate aftermath. Three, what happens to mal after everyone else has escaped. Each era has its own tint so you can tell which is which. The distant pasty is somewhat dreamlike and bright, the disaster appears normal, and Mal’s plight is on a darkened, shadowy Serenity. it does take a moment to realize the time period a certain part of the episode is taking place in because the cuts are so rapid. A bit jarring there.

The flashbacks are not presented in chronological order. Instead, they are arranged in sometimes questionable sequence for dramatic effect. Think of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill to get what I mean. I am going to run through them from oldest to latest. Begin at the beginning, says I.

Mal is being shown around a used ship lot by a stereotypical used car salesman. The guy wants to sell him a modern, time of the line vessel, Mal the beat up Firefly-class transport abandoned on the edge of the lot catches his eye. Thus begins the same romance between Mal and Serenity that James Kirk enjoys with Enterprise. The emotional connection comes into play later. Zoe is Mot impressed when Mal gives her a tour, but she knows he is hooked on it. Mal hires wash as the pilot. Zoe does not like him at first because he is weird and immature. Mal hires and then fires bester, a surfer-dude mechanic who has not been able to make a simple repair in a week. His girlfriend, Kaylee, identifies the problem while having sex, so mal hires her on the spot to be the new mechanic. Inara rents shuttle space from Mal citing her good standing with the Alliance under the condition Mal never call her a whore again. That part of the agreement does not last long. Mal hires Jayne when he is being held up by him and his associates. Mal makes Jayne a better offer than they have, so he switches sides. This explains why Jayne says he would turn on mal for a better offer.

In the second set of flashbacks, the crew is settling down to celebrate simon’s birthday when an explosion in the engine room disables the ship. Zoe is severely injured in the blast. Serenity is adrift and now running out of oxygen. Wash is distraught over Zoe and Kaylee beats herself up in the belief the explosion was her fault. The distress signal is not likely strong enough to reach any help, so mal orders the crew to use the escape shuttles. They are to split into two groups and head in opposite directions to double their chances of finding help. Mal opts to stay behind with Serenity.

The final flashbacks occur with Mal alone on Serenity waiting for the oxygen to run out. After some time, Serenity is discovered by another ship. But rather than Mal’s salvation, they turn out to be thieves who want to steal Serenity. Mal fights them off, but is shot in the abdomen in the process. He goes back to waiting for the inevitable end, with a gratuitously gruesome self-administered shot of adrenaline to the heart to sustain. He manages to make the necessary engine repair before passing out.

In the end, zoe has regained conscious and ordered everyone to return to Serenity. They discover Mal in time for simon to patch up his wound. With everything back in order, Mal asks if everyone is still going to be there when he wakes up. They assure him they will. The ending demonstrates that Mal, who barked everyone around before they left out of a concern for his ship, has realized there are relationships which are more important.

Two points of note. The port compression coil is a running element through all three eras. It is the item Kaylee repairs in the past. It is the item which explodes. Mal remembers how to repair it by recalling how Kaylee did it years ago. I assume Bester is an homage to science fiction writer Alfred bester, the same as the Babylon 5 character. The real Bester is probably rolling over in his grave to know his Firefly namesake is a sand for brains surfer who cannot make the simplest of mechanical repairs even though he is supposed to be a mechanic.

I can appreciate what “Out of Gas” is supposed to be, but I do not think it resonates well. Granted, I am not the biggest Firefly fan, so I am not particularly interested in how it all began. Someone with more emotional attachment probably cites this episode as his favorite. Most of the first meetings between mal and the crew are more pedestrian than anything else. Bouncing among three flashback eras was a bit much, but I can handle it. Chalk this one up as good, but with obvious flaws.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Firefly--"Jaynestown"

“Jaynestown” is frequently cited as the best episode of Firefly, so I will go easy on it. Pulling punches will not be too difficult a task. While Firefly never rung my bell, “Jaynestown” is one of the more amusing episodes. Jayne has been a man of few words thus far, and what he has said has made him out to be amoral muscle for hire. “Jaynestown” shows a different side of him. Not a hero, per se, but a guy who has his own sense of how things really work and the kind of man that underatanding makes him out to be.

Serenity lands on the planet canton with plans to arrange a smuggling job. Canton is essentially a mill town. Workers, called mudders, are paid near slave wages to create the raw materials to make bricks as hard as steel for a wealthy businessman. Jayne was here four years ago and pulled off a major robbery for which he is certain he has not been forgiven. He disguises himself in order to join the crew in canton, but soon discovers by way of a statue built in his honor and a folk song written about him that he is a hero to the mudders.

Four years ago, the robbery went bad. Jayne’s escape vehicle was shot. The money he had stolen showered down on all the mudders. They believe he gave them the stolen money own purpose because he saw how abused they were by their boss. He has become a robin Hood figure for them. When they realize he has come back, the whole town salutes him with wine, women, and song.

What is interesting here is Jayne’s reaction. He likes the attention even though he technically does not deserve it, but he does not take advantage of the mudders to rob them blind. He just enjoys what hey offer him, no more, no less. He is not being honest with them about what he has done, but he is not taking more than they are willing to freely give, either. He is motivated by sympathy for the mudders’ terrible lot in life. He does not even feel right about using the planned Jayne’s day celebration as cover for the smuggling job. As I said above, Jayne has a twisted moral code, but he does have one when pressed.

The local magistrate is not happy to see Jayne return. His inadvertent act of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor emboldened the mudders to stand up to authority for the first time. The magistrate releases Jayne’s incarcerated partner, Stitch, in crime, hands him a gun, and tells him Jayne is back on canton. Because of Jayne’s double-cross, stitch lost an eye and has spent the last four years in the hot box steaming--no pun intended--over the betrayal.

Stitch confronts Jayne at the celebration and reveals the truth about what happened with the money to all the mudders. In spite of now knowing Jayne is a thief and fraud, a mudder jumps in front of a bullet meant for Jayne. Incensed, Jayne beats stitch to death with his bare hands in an incredibly horrific scene in which the beating is out of the camera shot and left to the imagination. Jayne is confounded as to why a mudder would still sacrifice himself after learning Jayne did not give them the money on purpose all those years ago.

The issue at hand is that people need something to believe in. The idea of Jayne inspired the mudders to rise up. Whether Jayne the man is real is irrelevant. The theme also runs through the subplot wherein River rewrites parts a Shepherd’s holy book because it does not make sense to her. Shepherd tells her that truth is not as important as faith. It is faith in an idea, whether true or false, that changes people. I am not certain how much I buy into the concept--it is a subtle jab at the secularist notion Christians can still be “good’ people even though the Bible is myth--but given the eisode’s largely lighthearted tone, I will let it slide without much comment. “Jaynestown” does not offer much in the way of philosophy.

There are a couple other subplots involving simon and kaylee’s relationship heating up, only to sputter and Inara being hired to put some hair on the magistrate’s virginal son’s chest. The subplots tie in just loosely enough to the main story to not be extraneous elements just to give side characters something to do.

“Jaynestown” is mostly played for laughs. There are quite a few to be had. Adam Baldwin has not up until now been given a lot of room to do much with Jayne other than be gruff muscle. The character has not been anything but mercenary, either. The motif has gone so far as to establish Jayne would kill Mal if he could find someone who would pay him enough to make it worth his while. ‘Jaynestown” adds another dimension to the character. He still is not a hero, but he grows to appreciate the impact his actions can have on others.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Firefly--"Our Mrs. Reynolds"

It may be difficult to tell from the angle, but that is Christina Hendricks of Mad Men who is playing “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” The episode is played largely for laughs, sometimes to the point of absurdity, but it is an entertaining episode. I have to wonder if Joss Whedon has the same problem as George Lucas--no one is willing to suggest he rein it in a bit every now and then.

The episode begins with Jayne and mal posing as husband and “wife” while protecting a load of cargo from a band of thieves. That night, they take part in a celebration at which a beautiful young girl places a wreath on mal’s head, offers him wine, and takes him for a dance. The next morning, mal discovers the girl, named Staffron, is his new bride. Shepherd reads up on local customs as the rest of the crew mocks mal brutally for the pickle he is in. According to shepherd’s research, placing of a wreath on the head, drinking wine, and dancing is the local version of a marriage ceremony.

Saffron is a mousy, subservient woman. While Mal urges her to be more assertive, he allws her to cook for him and is seduced by her later in his room. Saffron is not what she seems, however. He lips are laced with a narcotic that knocks mal out. She attempts to kiss wash, too, but he resists because he respects her marriage and his romance with Zoe. She kicks him to knock him out, then sets Serenity on a different course and smashes the controls so the crew cannot alter it.

While attempting to get to a shuttle, Saffron encounters Inara and tries to kiss her, too. They do not lip lock long enough to be effective, but Saffron diverts Inara’s attention by referring to herself as Mal’s widow. She escapes as Inara discovers mal is merely unconscious in his room, not dead. The ship is on a collision course for a gisnt electric net. The purpose of the net is to catch the ship and electrocute everyone on board while leaving everything else intact. The crew cannot stop the ship, but Jayne is able to disable the electric net with an impressive shot from his rifle. Mal tracks down Saffron, but gets no answers from her. He punches her unconscious, but otherwise leaves her be. Because she is going to be a recurring character, of course.

The over the top humor is supposed to sustain the wafer thin plot, and does a good job overall. Some aspects are a bit much, such as how the crew stands around arguing over who got seduced versus who was punched out when they should have been worried more about getting the ship back on course. There also a completely manufactured cut to commercial cliffhanger which looks like Jayne is going to shoot Mal, but offers to trade his gun for Saffron post commercial. for heaven's sake! But that is television for you, right? “Our Mrs. Reynolds” is an amusing episode overall in spite of Whedon being just a little too cheeky.

Rating; *** (out of 5)If you require a better look at Christina Hendricks, here you go.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Firefly--"Safe"

As with the previous episode, “Safe” answers the question of why a group of thieves and smugglers keep extraneous crew along with them. In this case, it is Shepherd and the Tams rather than Inara. The plot deals with mal making a fateful choice between getting desperately needed medical treatment for Shepherd or finding the kidnapped tams. We learn Shepherd is considered a VIP by the Alliance and through flashbacks, the past life of the Tams before Simon rescued River.

Mal seeks to sell the cattle Serenity is smuggling on a backwater world. Mal, who is still showing an open animosity for the trouble harboring the Tams is causing, tells them to get scarce durinb the deal. Mal takes shepherd along with him and Jayne to make a deal with the cattlers rustlers. Local authorities intervene and there is a shootout during which shepherd is gravely wounded.

After a brief stint shopping with Inara and Kaylee in which Simon in adversity insults Kaylee, he takes River out of the store and subsequently loses her. He discovers her later at a square dance, smiling and having a good time. While distracted, some men throw a burlap sack over his head and drag him off. River follows and is kidnapped, too.

Back on Serenity Mal orders wash to find Simon while he performs field surgery. The operation is good enough to stabilize Shepherd, but not save him. Wash cannot find Simon. Mal declares he and river have likely been taken by hill people, who often kidnap professional types and force them into labor. He probably should have mentioned that to Simon beforehand. Mal leaves them behind to seek medical treatment for Shepherd.

The Tams are taken to a village in which Simon feels obligated to treat the many sick. River seems to be more at ease in the family oriented environment. The positive change in her makes simon lament the normal life they have lost because of being on the run. Things go sour when river’s mysterious mental powers allow her to read a mute girl’s mind. The villagers call her a witch who must be burned at the stake.

Meanwhile, Serenity reluctantly docks at an Alliance base for Shepherd’s sake. The alliance staff do not want to treat Shepherd, especially when they realize he has a bullet wound. He shows them an identification card, and they immediately treat him as a VIP. He never reveals his past with the Alliance, even when pressed by Mal. With Shepherd healed, Serenity returns to rescue the Tams just in the nick of time.

“Safe’ plays heavily on the theme of family. The most obvious aspect is the sibling relationship between Simon and River. Their connection is told through flashbacks from the time they are children up until Simon defies his parents, who do not believe river is in trouble in the Alliance institution, in order to rescue her. In the end, he is unable to rescue her from being tied to the stake, so he opts to be executed right along with her. In another aspect, Shepherd is presented as less a moral compass for the crew than a father figure. Even the mercenary Jayne is upset at the prospect of losing him at the same time he is looting the apparently gone forever Simon’s room for valuables. Mal was both willing to risk capture by the alliance to save Shepherd and to come back for the troublesome Tams because they are part of a pseudo family. The episode ends with all of them eating together as a family.

You young whippersnappers should note Zac Efrom makes his acting debut as young Simon. Zefron is known for starring in High School Musical. I had to look him up to find out what the big deal is with him. Did High School Musical’s popularity start the fad that cursed us with Glee? It sounds like it. Boo, hiss1

“Safe” is an enjoyable, character oriented episode. Joss Whedon has said he likes to have creating a family as a running theme through his television shows. I cannot speak for much of his past endeavors, but he is certainly heavy-handed with it here. There is more less than subtle anti-Christian bias as well, but considering Shepherd is seen as a positively relious moral guide, I will chalk up the ignorant burn the witch villagers as a commentary on too strict fundamentalists only and leave it at that.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Firefly--"Shindig"

I perked up quite a bit when I noticed Jane Esperson wrote “Shindig.” While I remain blissfully unaware of her previous work for Joss Whedon, I have enjoyed many of her scripts for Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, and Torchwood: Miracle Day. I looked forward to watching “Shindig” and was not disappointed.

Serenity returns to Persephon, the planet they beat a hasty retreat from in the pilot. Inara plans to attend a formal ball and chooses an aristocratic client named Atherton Wing as her escort. grease monkey Kaylee is enthralled by the formal dresses the upper crust wears to these things, but Mal pops her bubble by insulting how she would look in one. She storms off very upset. The rest of the crew, sans the not so sensitive Jayne, follow suit in solidarity with her.

Mal and Jayne are accosted by Badger, whom we also met in the pilot. He has the opportunity to move some hot property off world for a big shot named Warwick Harrow, but harrow will not have anything to do with a lowlife like Badger. He wants mal to act as the middleman contact. Harrow happens to be the man throwing the formal ball, so mal kills two birds with one stone by escorting kaylee to the ball in order to get close to Harrow.

Inara is not thrilled to see Mal in attendance. He cuts in her dance with wing in order to tell her about the business proposition. She reveals she is considering building a life here with wing instead of continuing on Serenity. wing cuts back in under the rationale he has paid for Inara’s company. Incensed at the implication inara is a hooker--paid companion is a much classier term, I guess--Mal punches him. He winds up being challenged to a sword fight at dawn with master swordsman Wing. Oops.

Mal practices all night, but it is clear he has no skill with a sword. Inara is still angry at him for defending her honor when she did not ask for his help. She thinks he ought to escape to avoid being killed, but mal refuses to back down from the duel. In the morning, mal meets the challenge, and is outclassed as a swordsman by wing until he decides to punch him and steal his sword. Having won as far as harrow is concerned, mal is awarded the deal to move the hot cargo--a full head of cattle. While looking out over the cattle in the cargo bay, Inara thanks Mal for defending her and wonders why she ever thought about leaving such a glamorous life.

“Shindig” has some great character moments. Obviously, the main characters featured are mal and Inara. Mal’s roguish ways have been well established already, as has his warped sense of morality. He will brutally insult a young girl, then backhandedly make her dream come true while using her to line up an illegal operation, and then nearly blow it all risking his life to defend a prostitute’s honor when she refuses to do so herself. If nothing else, Mal’s actions towards her establish Inara as an important part of the crew. Kaylee is amusing. The low class tomboy in her keeps her from fitting in with the high society girls, but she finally finds her place talking shop with a crowd of mechanically inclined men.

River’s manic ways are on display yet again. In a down period, she frantically rips the blue sun labels off the can goods in the mess hall, which is a reference to the Blue Hand agents who sre looking for her. In a lucid moment, she provides a distraction for the crew who are being held captive by Badger to prevent them from interfering with the duel. There is no way she could have known they needed a distraction at that precise time, nor could she have known the details of Badger’s life in order to converse with him as she did. Emerging psychic powers, folks.

“Shindig” hovers close to sitcom territory in much of its tone and plot, but the jokes are funny and the characterizations are fun, so I have no complaints. Esperson apparently had a good time writing what is essentially a Jane Austen period piece. It shows in the finished product.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Firefly--"Bushwhacked"

“Bushwhacked’ is a reminder of why I am so ambivalent about Firefly. The premise is not a bad one--the crew salvages a derelict ship and gets caught by the Alliance, but the they have to team up with the alliance to solve a more immediate problem. The problem is more in how the complication is explained and issues are resolved.

The Serenity encounters a derelict ship adrift. Mal decides to board the ship, either to help the survivors or loot the dead. The salvage crew discovers it is a former scow converted into a transport vessel for settlers headed for outer planets. Whoever the ship’s complement were, they were attacked by reavers and hung upside down from the ceiling. As the salvage crew finishes taking all the valuables, Jayne is attacked by a lone survivor from the transport. They take him to Serenity for medical treatment.

Shepherd requests to cut down the victims and give them a proper funeral. Mal agrees, if for no other reason than to keep him busy while Kaylee disarms a booby trap attached to Serenity by the Reavers. The scene is Shepherd’s only reason for being in the episode, and the extraneous nature of it carries over to Kaylee’s disarming the booby trap. It is her only moment in the episode, as well. The poignancy of Shepherd’s spiritual concerns and the tension of Kaylee saving the ship is completely absent because the scenes are there solely to involve the characters in a story in which they are otherwise not engaged. Shades of Chakotay from VOY there.

A medical exam reveals the nameless survivor has been brutally tortured by the Reavers. The reavers, by the way, are feral, cannibalistic humans who lost their minds when they traveled to the edge of the galaxy and found nothing. Of significanse. Make sense. Clark Griswald went crazy when Wally world was closed for repairs after his family’s long journey, so if the reavers became feral cannibals, it makes perfect sense. Oh, wait--no it does not. I understand civilization is supposed to be a hot meal and a good night’s sleep from utter collapse, but seriously. Becoming feral cannibals because because you did not even learn 42 is the answr, much less the question? I assume the reavers are supposed to be a commentary on the barbarism of man, but it is too ridiculous to take seriously. Sorry, Browncoats, but unless there is a better explanation coming in an episode I have not seen before, tha Reaver origin does not fly.

An Alliance ship arrives and detains the crew, first on suspicions they are harboring the Tams and then on an illegal salvage operation. Both of which are true, by the way. Simon and River hide in spacesuits on the hull while the alliance inrrogates the crew. Harken, the alliance officer in charge, believes the still unnamed sirvivor’s mutilated condition was caused by Mal torturing him. Mal explains the ship was attacked by reavers, so they are the ones who brutalized him. Mal surmizes his experience at their hands was so traumatizing, he is becoming a Reaver himself. True to form, the guy ihas become a reaver. He attacks Harken, who is saved by mal and Jayne. Presumable in gratitude, the Serenity is allowed to leave, sans salvaged cargo, and with suspicions the Tams are still onboard.

I am not as down on “Bushwhacked” as it may sound, but the episode is not very well thought out. Shepherd and Kaylee have contrived roles devoid of any emotion because they are just thrown in there. The Reavers would make for more interesting villains if their origin was more plausible. As I said above, I assume their condition is supposed to be a comment on the thin barrier holding in man’s dark nature, but making them aliens would have been far better. Joss whedon’s prohibition against aliens on Firefly has its first casualty.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Firefly--"The Train Job"

“The Train Job” was the first episode of Firefly to air. As such, it had to introduce the characters and themes in half the time of the original pilot. I have to put myself in the mindset of someone who has not just viewed the pilot and therefore knows nothing about Firefly. In that sense, the episode hit’s the ground running as far as character backgrounds are concerned, but establishes the western in space theme handily. We have an old fashioned train robbery here. The results of the caper reveal much about the characters’ motivations, but not enough about who the heck they are in the first place.

The teaser introduces Mal, Zoe, and Jayne as their drinking and Chinese Checkers match is interrupted by a bar fight. The three were at the bar in order to make contacts for a new job. A crime boss named Niska, whose existence accent and organization imply the Russian mafia has expandedd into deep space by the 26th century, wants them to steal cargo from a train on a remote desert planet. They are warned not to fail by the appearance of the corpse of the last mercenary Niska hired who failed.

The daring operation goes off without a hitch. Mal and zoe pose as passengers to deal with the alliance security while Serenity hovers over the train and lifts the cargo out. When Mal and Zoe arrive at the train’s destination, they discover what they have stolen is the town’s desperately needed medical supplies. Mal determines to get the medicine back, but he and Zoe are detained by the local sheriff along with the other passengers until how the theft was executed can be sorted out.

While “The Train Job” does not cover how the crew came together, it does establish their skewed sense of morality, particularly Mal’s. they are thieves for hire, but they are not going to cause harm to the innocent with their theft. There is a point as well well Shepherd questions why Mal continues to harbor the fugitives simon and river when there is no profit in it. Or why Shepherd is allowed to stay himself, for that matter. Mal responds that he respects Simon for sacrificing everything to save his sister, which is probably true, but one also suspects Mal wants to tweak the alliance for their treatment of the helpless like River. It also is not said aloud, but Mal wants shepherd there as a moral compass. Mal forbids any Tebowing, however.

The crew rescues Mal and Zoe with a ruse against the sheriff. When the two return to Serenity, Mal reveals they are giving the medicine back to the townspeople. Unfortunately, Niska’s men have already arrived and heard mal’s plan. They refuse to take Niska’s money back and call it even, so there is a violent confrontation in which they lose. Mal returns the medicine and, in a famous sequence, tosses the head goon into space when he refuses to accept the money back and moves down the chain of command until he finds an agreeable chap. The final scene introduces the Blue Hands members of the Alliance who are looking for River.

“The Train Robbery” makes for a good episode, but not a good first episode. The characters are thrown at us far too quickly. For instance it is stated simon and River are fugitives and River has had some torturous medical experiments done on her which have caused her to nearly lose her mind. That is fine, but the pilot elaborated on that far better. For another, Jayne warns Kaylee to not get too attached to Simon because he thinks Mal is going to turn them into the alliance for the big reward. This does not establish Jayne’s mercenary mindset nearly as well as his assurances to Mal that if bribed handsomely enough, he would kill him. The bottom line is “The Train Job” would be great if it did not have to act as a pseudo-pilot and could have dealt with the plot alone. It is still very entertaining.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Firefly--"Serenity"

It is no secret I am not a fan of Joss whedon or his teenie bopper vampires. Whedon is a third generation screenwriter who catches far more breaks in Hollywood than he should because of his daddy and grandfather. As far as I am concerned, he has flopped around like a fish on the river bank since writing the first Toy Story. Nevertheless, I am going to give Firefly a secret shot. I missed the series’ short run back in 2002 because I was drowning in Constitutional and criminal law. I watched a couple episodes when the Sci Fi Channel began airing them in proper order a few years later, but did not get hooked. Fair warning--I have seen both ’Jaynestown” and ‘Out of Gas” without becoming a fan. Make of that what you will.

“Serenity” begins six years in the past with mal Reynolds and Zoe Alleyne as part of an army unit called Browncoats battling the Alliance in serenity Valley during the Unification War. The Browncoats are without air support, so they wind up slaughtered by the alliance. Six years later, Mal and Zoe survive as thieves and smugglers onboard a Firefly-clss ship called Serenity. The two are in charge of a small crew of misfits and a mercenary named Jayne Cobb with loyalty to the highest bidder. The crew makes a daring in space theft of alliance cargo.

They have a deal to sell the cargo to a two-bit gangster named Badger, played by the always great Mark Sheppard. Badger reneges on the agreement because the Alliance is now after Serenity and he does not like Mal’s contemptuous attitude towards him. The crew is desperate for cash, so mal decides he will sell the cargo to an old buddy in Whitefallwho once shot him over a “conflict of interest.” to make ends meet, the crew takes on passengers: a preacher named Shepherd Book, the nebbish Lawrence Dobson, and a wealthy surgeon named Simon Tam who is carrying his own hot cargo.

Hot cargo in more ways than one. After a confrontation in which Kaylee, another member of the crew, is severely wounded, Mal opens the casing to see what could cause so much trouble. It is a naked River Tam, played by Summer Glau, in cryogenic sleep. Simon explains that River is his sister. She is a prodigy who was enrolled at a special alliance school for the gifted. Students were tortured and experimented on, so Simon left his job to rescue her. Now they are on the run from the Alliance. Simon scores points by performing life saving surgery on Kaylee.

Dobson, who is the one who injured Kaylee, is suspected of communicating Serenity’s whereabouts to the alliance. He did not, but he offers a bribe to Jayne in order to help him. The offer is an important plot point for later. Dobson is eventually killed by Mal when Simon does not have the nerve to do the job himself, even though he has great devotion to his sister. With Dobson’s death, mal has now killed a federal agent.

Along the way to Whitefall, the crew encounters the Reavers they are introduced as a brutally sadistic enemy who skin their victims alive. The attempt to sell the cargo goes badly, and there is a slam bang action sequence in which mal kills a horse. Did PETA have fits over Firefly? I do not recall, but that is the first thing that came to mind upon seeing Mal fatally shoot the horse. The crew manages to escape, though battered and bruised, and destroy the Reaver ship. Mal offers Simon and River the chance to remain on Serenity if Simon will serve as a sawbones. Mal and Jayne have a confrontation over Jayne’s contemplation of accepting Dobson’s bribe. Jatne tells him the money was not enough for a betrayal, but one day, it might.

Firefly has a very unique feel to it. The atmosphere is a combination of wild west and Asian culture. The whole notion of cowboys dropping Chinese sayings is jarring, which may be one of the reasons Firefly never caught on. I appreciate the high production values regardless. As with Battlestar Galactica a year later the show utilizes CGI on the relative cheap, but does so effectively.

I also appreciate the gritty feel. The main character truly are living hand to mouth on the run out in the wild frontier. Two scenes in particular, both involving kaylee, emphasize the point. In one, Shepherd offers her a strawberry as added incentive to allow him on Serenity. she savors it--seductively, I might add--as a rare delicacy. The second bit is how bare bones the medical bay is for Simon to operate on her. Unlike the original Battlestar Galactica and especially Star Trek: Voyager, both of which supposedly depict desperate crews scraping to get by on limited resources, the crew truly is roughing it on Firefly.

“Serenity” is a solid episode which effectively introduces the main characters while presenting enough action to hold an audience’s attention. The safe for television nudity is gratuitous. That is always a plus. So is Jewel Stait sucking on a strawberry. Whoever came up with that idea is a genius. It is lamentable FOX did not air the pilot in proper order. The series might have attracted more fans if the network had.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Battlestar Galactica--"The Hand of God"

“The Hand of god’ is the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. The series ends on a high note with a battle against a Cylon Basestar that mirrors the finale of Star Wars. U know fans do not like to hear that, but sneaking onto the basestar to disable the scanners parallels Ben Kenobi’s shutting down the Death Star’s tractor beam The finale fight between the Galactica and the Basestar is clearly inspired by the destruction of the Death Star. Hey, I do not say its is bad. If you are going to steal, steal from the best.

Apollo and Starbuck take sheba and Cassiopia up to the celestial navigation chamber to play heavy pet the daggit when the festivities are interrupted by a long out of use signal comes in through the navigation system. Curiosity piqued, they attempt to clean up the message, but can only determine it is an routine radio transmission from a rudimentary space craft thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years ago. Taking a viper patrol out in the general direction of the message signal, they discover a Basestar waiting in ambush. Adama works under the assumption the Cylons sent the signal out as a lure. Rather than reverse course, he opts to fight.

The Galactica has the element of surprise, but an attack would still be a desperate battle with the Colonials outnumbered two to one. Apollo brainstorms an idea to use Baltar’s ship to get into the Basestar to disable its scanners so catch the Cylons completely off guard. To gather enough recon, Adama offers Baltar his freedom, albeit marooned on a nearby planet, in exchange for the layout and guard complement of the Basestar. Baltar agrees.

The plan for Apollo and Starbuck to sneak onto the Basestar works, save for their losing the signaling device that would keep Vipers from destroying their ship. (They survive by “waggling.” True story.) The Galactica successfully destroys the Basestar. Although the entire story up until the dogfight between the Cylon Raiders and the Vipers implies are going to be outnumbered and outgunned, it never appears as though the Cylons are winning. Maybe in the Charlie Sheen sense. The dogfight loses something since it is entirely easily recognizable stock footage. Ambitious though it may be, “The Hand of God” is done on the cheap.

Nevertheless, the episode utilizes what it has. The story is not only exciting in the action sense, but also on the personal level. Sheba and Cassiopia yank their respective men aside to scold them for taking on every dangerous mission which comes along. Sheba worries that Apollo has a death wish sense Sirina died. Cassiopia wants Starbuck to stop being so reckless and build a responsible life for himself. These two scenes foreshadow what would have come in Glen larson’s early notes for the second season. Sheba was to be killed early on. Apollo would resign his commission upon her death. Starbuck would take over as head of the Blue squadron. Alas, a second season was not to be.

There are some issues with “The Hand of God.” The signal received is the 1969 moon landing. If the Galactica is just now receiving its first transmissions from Earth, then it ought to be receiving the oldest. Naturally, the moon landing was chosen for its poignancy, but the images received should have been the 1936 Olympic games or maybe even that famous first image of Felix the Cat. Boxey’s absense is conspicuous considering Apollo’s supposed death wish is a prominent plot point. Is his son not a concern? What may be the biggest deal is baltar’s release? We never find out if adama kept his word, but it is assumed he did. Certainly, Baltar would have been rescued from his marooning and returned to haunt the fleet in later episodes had they been produced. Surely adama would lose much prestige in the eyes of the survivors for releasing the man responsible for the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. I let these issues pass, however. “The Hand of God” is still a worthy resolution even with its issues and lack of originality. I find myself lamenting what a continuation of the series might have entailed because of the episode, so it did its job.

Eddie Seidel, Jr. famously took the cancellation tragically much harder.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Battlestar Galactica--"Take the Celestra"

“Take the Celestra” is the penultimate episode of Battlestar Galactica. It is another bottle show dealing with conditions within the fleet. The idea is a good one. We have not seen any of the rough conditions in which the survivors have been living under since the second hour of the pilot. Since then, we have seen wealthier survivors living in relative comfort, casinos, dance halls, and a game room anyone can use. Much like on Star Trek; Voyager, roughing it seems to be a relative term. Why the series waited until the series end to show us the underbelly is beyond me.

“Take the Celestra“ was a troubled shoot. Aside from the regular issue of a tight budget, the story of a coup on one of the ships called for several violent sequences. Some of those violent scenes were written as commercial break cliffhangers or cut aways to other scenes. In television censoring terms, each time a violent sequence is introduced, then cut away from by either commercial or another scene, and then returned to, it is considered a separate act of violence. To cap it off, the climax features an onscreen death. The powers that be were forced to do battle with the network over what could finally make it to air. What made it is quite good for a bottle show.

Adama is hosting an award ceremony for Kronos, current captain of the Celestra and former battlestar commander. During the ceremony, Starbuck spots an old flame of his, Aurora, whom he believed to be killed when the Colonies were destroyed. He catches up with her afterwards, but she is not much interested in talking to him. It would have been easy to confirm she was still alive. As far as she is concerned, starbuck never cared to search for her. She is also motivated by the coup she and her new fellow are plotting against Kronos.

Starbuck convinces Apollo to accompany him on a routine check on the Celestra so he can patch things up with Aurora. They arrive right in the middle of the armed revolt. They manage to stop the coup and arrest Aurora and her co-conspirator, Dannon. Never trust a guy named after yogurt, people. I cannot stress that enough. However, their shuttle is reprogrammed to head off into deep space by hermes, the Celestra second-in-command, Charka, so he can commit a second coup. The cup is eventually defeated, but with the sacrifice of Kronos’ life and Starbuck’s broken heart.

I am left wondering exactly how Aurora, dannon, and Charka ever thought they could stay in command of the Celestra after overthrowing Kronos. Even if the Celestra struck out on its own, which there were no plans for it to do so, it would have been overpowered by the colonial warriors anyway. Kronos was said to be a brutal tyrant, probably due to the ego bruise of no longer commanding a battlestar, but there is not much of his character display to bear that out. He is definitely a straightlaced military type, but not a tyrant. Exactly how are the people in his charge suffering/ Are they really, or are the conspirayors merely hungry for power? I am not certain. These are two murky plot points.

In spite of those murky plot points, “Take the Celestra” is a good action oriented episode. The Starbuck/Aurora subplot would work far better if Starbuck had not admitted to Chameleon a few episode bsck that Casseopia is the only woman he has ever truly loved. The admission makes it difficult to accept he ever had any sort of attachment to Aurora. It is a minot gripe, however. The series is filling out its episode order at this point, so serious complaints about what makes it to the airwaves is like complaining about the amenities on a sinking ship.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Battlestar Galactica--"Experiment in Terra"

“Experiment in Terra” can best be summed up as Battlestar Galactica meets Quantum Leap. Not that the similarities between the plot of ‘Experiment in Terra’ and the premise of Quantum Leap are the only science fiction connections. The episode is loaded with cameos from actors famous for other science fiction roles anf easily identifiable sets from other series. A virtual geekasm, this is.

It is absolutely necessary to mention the most noticeable issue regarding ‘Experiment in Terra.” the story was originally Starbuck-centric, but Richard Hatch complained to the producers Starbuck had become a more prominent character than Apollo as of late. He had a point. Starbuck had two episodes in a row focusing on him just a few days back. The next episode features an old flame of his returning. Fans remember Starbuck more fondly. It was not hatch who played Faceman in The A-Team either, so I can understand a little professional jealousy here. Whether the powrrs that be were happy to change the focus of the episode, ort recognized the series was getting cancelled and did not care anymore, the script was not rewritten, but Apollo performed all dialogue and actions meant for Starbuck and vice versa.

The differences are subtle, but noticeable if you are aware of the juxtaposition. Apollo is a lot more flippant than usual while Starbuck, who comes to his rescue halfway through the episode, is a much less reckless character. Being slightly out of character is not a huge deal when it comes to speech patterns and joke cracking. The detriment here comes in the climactic scene in which Apollo has to step up and address the Terran government as they are foolishly making peace with the Eastern Alliance simultaneously with the alliance executing an all out nuclear assault, a circumstance which parallels the Cylons’ destruction of the Twelve Colonies. Apollo is a mature, level headed guy. You could easily picture him making an impassioned plea that the alternative to war is not always peace, but sometimes slavery. It would be a struggle for the rouguish Starbuck, and therefore the speech would mean more coming from him. Some grow from the character. It still works with Apollo. Considering the way I just escribed him, you may think it works better. But I think the original plan with Starbuck, the flippant soul who pretends to have no emotions, saving the day by speaking from his heart rather than a laser gun would have had more impact.

As I said above, the general plot mirrors an episode of Qyuantum Leap . In fact:Apollo’s Viper makes a flyby passed the mountain that “houses” Project: Quantum Leap in one of the early scenes. Before that, Apollo, Starbuck, and boomer are following the homing beacon stashed aboard the escaping Eastern Alliance ship from the previous episode to Terra. Apollo’s ship is captured by the ship of Light and he is recruited by John, played by the eventual devon from Knight Rider, Edward Mulhare, to take the place of a man from Terra in order to prevent a nuclear war. Everyone will see Apollo as Charlie Watts, a current POW on Lunar I and not the drummer for the rolling stones, as John, who no one will be able to see but Apollo, will act as an advisor. Sam and al, anyone?

Charlie is involved with Brenda Maxwell, played by Melody Anderson--Dale Arden in the campy 1980 version of Flash Gordon. Brenda is the daughter of a prominent general who advises the president. He is Apollo/Charlie’s ticket to stop the peace treaty signing. He faces the obvious obstacles of not knowing enough about Charlie to stay out of police custody on suspicion his ordeal as a soldier may have effected his mind. Only the eventual intervention of Starbuck convinces all parties he is telling the truth. General Maxwell charges Apollo/Charlie with the task of addressing the president and legislative body on the folly of giving in to the Eastern Alliance.

During the impassioned speech in which Apollo/Charlie relates the fate of the twelve Colonies under similar circumstances, the eastern alliance launches it nuclear arsenal. Terra and the eastern alliance have an Mutually Assured Destruction stance between them on the use of nuclear arms, so Terra launches its arsenal as well. The Galactica intervenes, destroying both side’s missiles in midair. Neither side understands what has happened. It is dubbed a miraculous circumstance by Terra and a sign the Terrans are too powerful to conquer to the Eastern alliance. An honest peace treaty is subsequently signed. We also discover, if it is not clear enough already, Terra is not Earth. The revelation is not much of a bummer, when you really think about it.

“Experiment in Terra” is the last really good episode of the series, though its Cold War allegory does feel awfully dated. The episode is a bit out of place because it is so unlike any other episode. Not just in terms of Apollo acting like Starbuck, but the whole Apollo as Charlie saving an alien world with the Galactica serving as the all powerful savior. The resolution feel a lot like latter day Star trek. an impassioned speech by one of the main cast lectures an alien race on what they are doing wrong. Said speech saves those aliens from certain doom. With that in mind, quite a bit of the remaining cast is rounded out by guest stars from various Star Trek series: John de Lancie, Nehemiah Persoff, and Logan Ramsey. Geekgasm there, folks.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Battlestar Galactica--"Baltar's Escape"

“Baltar’s Escape" is another budget saving bottle show. Fortunately, it is one of the best. The penny pinching is not as obvious and the story advances the current arc. The ending does leave one dangling plot thread, but I cannot hold that against the episode as a whole.

The ruling council is enormously upset the Eastern Alliance officers have been treated like war criminals. The council, working under the assumption Terra is definitely Earth, decide to treat them as guests instead in the hopes of making a peaceful entrance to Terra. To make certain the trip to Terra goes smoothly, martial law ends so that the military will have no say so in what happens next. As usual, the civilian government is presented as short sighted and foolish while the military knows exactly how to handle things.

Baltar and the Borellian Noman conspire to join with the Eastern Alliance officers to escape the prison barge and hamstring the Galactica’s ability to offer pursuit so they can escape. The Eastern alliance goes along with the plan because Baltar plans to reveal all Galactica weak spots. His knowledge did not help the Cylons much and the Eastern alliance colonel boasts his military forces can overwhelm the Galactica anyway, but the plot has to be furthered, so just go with it.

The bad guys land on the Galactica and immediately take the council hostage. Baltar threatens to blow up the shuttle with them inside if his Cyon pilots are not returned within the hour so he and his cohorts can escape. The situation is effectively dramatic. No one believes Baltar will spare the council regardless, so Adama plans an assault with the hope Baltar will be so thrown off, he will not have a chance to blow up the shuttle. The odds are not in Adama’s favor, and his council advisor is not making thing any easier in spite of her reluctance to allow military involvement causing the hostage crisis in the first place. The matter is resolved when Apollo--it would be him--devises a new plan to utilize the less than perfectly rebuilt Cylon pilots to startle Baltar before he can set off the bomb. The military also placed a homing device on the eastern alliance ship in order to lead them back to Lunar VII.

That dangling plot thread I mentioned? The Eastern Alliance escape is allowed in order to find Lunar VII and Baltar’s re-capture is necessary to keep the bomb from going off. But what of the Borellian Noman? They escape, but no one cares. I guess everyone is just glad to be rid of them.

One has to ponder a few points regarding “Baltar’s Escape.” the civilian leadership is so stubbornly naïve in their decisions throughout the episode, the way they are presented borders on satire. Why is Baltar, the man responsible for humanity’s near genocide, allowed to freely work in the mess hall/? The Borellian Noman do not respect him as a strategist, so why do they go along with his plan/ the Eastern alliance colonel does not need him, either. In fact, there is no reason for them to escape at all. They are not only being released, but are confident they can defeat the Galactica themselves.

Baltar himself seems a little off. At one point, he expresses to Boomer his regret that Apollo and starbuck are not there so he can settle all his scores at once. Apollo and Starbuck, I understand, but why does Baltar bear a personal grudge against Boomer/ Certainly, Boomer has destroyed many Cylon Raiders, but so has any Viper pilot. It does not make much sense for him to single Boomer out. Sheba is right beside Boomer. Baltar does not appear bothered by her. Speaking of being bothered, Baltar becomes visibly upset when no one takes his word that he will not kill the council anyway. Is he feeling lingering a hint of loyalty to his old colleagues? I do not know, but he bounces right back towards threatening them an instant later.

It may sound like I have an axe to grind myself, but it is not true. “Baltar’s Escape” does a lot for a bottle show. The story presents genuine tension within a small plot that still does not feel like a cheap distraction from the overall arc. It is pretty cool to see cylons again, too. There are some issues with various elements I have already addressed, but “Baltar’s Escape’ is quite good for a late season installment.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Battlestar Galactica--"Greetings from Earth"

“Greetings from Earth” originally aired as a two hour movie and later edited into two episodes for syndication. I err on original intent whenever possible, so I am reviewing both episodes as a movie. Good thing, too. It has been fifteen years or longer since I last saw them. In that time, I had forgotten how quickly the story peters out as it progresses. The first hour is far better than the second.

The fleet encounters a sleeper ship traveling through space and intercept it. There are two adults and four children on board in suspended animation, all human. The powers that be, who ought to have been divided about bringing the ship aboard the Galactica in the first place, are conflicted over how to proceed. Some want to wake the passengers up for interrogation about their possible knowledge of Earth. Others have decided after the fact they should not interfere with the ship’s journey.

The bulk of the first hour deals with the philosophical debate with the two powerful side lining up against one another. Generally speaking, the military and medical personnel want the ship to go on its merry way. The political leadership and civilians want the people revived. Our heroes are divided in their opinions for the sake of personal drama, but they all naturally line up behind idealist Apollo in advocating the ship be allowed to continue on its journey. I call him an idealist in this case because there is no hint reviving the passengers is the proper thing to do. Those who advocate doing so are abrasive and unpleasant. The only two main characters who are advocates, Starbuck and Athena, fall quickly in line behind Apollo.

The decision is made for them when the only adult male, Michael, wakes up and assumes he and the others have been captured by an Eastern Alliance. Michael is an apt name choice. In Mormon theology, Adam was the Archangel Michael during his pre-mortal life. As Michael, Adam lead the forces of heaven against Lucifer during the war in heaven. This Michael and his fellow travelers are set to begin a new life on another planet, but are faced with a brutal enemy that has been fighting a genocidal war against his people. Michael and the rest are allowed to continue on their journey with Apollo and Starbuck following to determine any possible connections to Earth.

Here is where things start sliding downhill. They arrive on a remote farming community called Paradeen. The planet has long since been bombed into oblivion by the Eastern Alliance. We eventually discover Paradeen was once a bustling metropolis, as there is a desolated city near the farming community. The Eastern Alliance plans to return and reestablish the city once they have won the war. Why anyone thinks Paradeen is a great place to settle is beyond me. One can only imagine how awful Michael’s home of Lunar VII must have been. There are some minor plot divergences to fill time, such as Michael’s arranged bride to be developing the hots for Apollo and Starbuck getting lost in the abandoned city, but the main deal is the anticlimactic encounter with Eastern alliance officers arriving on Paradeen Starbuck and Apollo capture them and return to the Galactica with the idea the officers will lead them to Terra, the planet that may be Earth.

“Greetings from Earth’ starts out great. There is an an air of mystery as to who those on the sleeper ship are and what is their connection, if any, to Earth. There is also an air of menace when the Eastern Alliance is mentioned. Could this be a powerful new enemy? The answers are disappointing. Michael and his brood are farmers. They are going to Paradeen from Terra, a planet which is not likely Earth. The Eastern Alliance turn out to be petty military tyrants no match for the Colonials. At no point is there even a hint the Galactica cannot defeat them swiftly. Where is the sense of ending two hours of television viewing on an exciting point? Not here. Most of the second hour felt like filler which amounted to a fizzled out ending. The concluding episode is a definite letdown from a promising possibilities of the opening.

Some saving graces do exist. There is plenty of homage. The sleeper ship is reminiscent of something from a ’30’s movie serial. It may even be a prop from the era, but I have not been able to confirm that through google. Michael and the others are wearing silver space suits just like the ones worn by the Robinsons in Lost in Space. so, yeah, they look like a family of baked potatoes. They have two robots named Hector and Vector to assist them on Paradeen. They are played by Vaudeville performers Bobby Van and Ray Bloger. You probably know Volger best as scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Michael’s bride to be is played by Lorne Greene’s daughter, Gillian Greene. Their children are all played by Glen larson’s real kids. The niftiest bit is the abandoned city on Paradeem was filmed at a site just outside Montreal that was built for the 1967 World Expo. It has been largely abandoned and reclaimed by the wilderness. The atmosphere is a perfect combination of futuristic, yet run down by neglect. How appropriate, considering how “Greetings from earth’ plays out.

You ay decide for yourself the tragedy of “Greetings from Earth” featuring the final appearance of Athena and Boxey.

So I am disappointed in “Greetings from Earth.’ There is a good build up, but it amounts to nothing. It could have been a classic story if there had been a slam bang conclusion. As an old school science fiction fan, I am all for some throwback elements to spice things up, but those are just eye candy. The story has to take us somewhere, particularly when it has promised an exciting destination. No such luck here. It was clear Battlestar Galactica was headed for cancellation at this point because of rising production costs and declining ratings--the series was up against All in the Family--and it really feels like everyone is phoning it in now.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Battlestar Galactica--"Murder on the Rising Star"

“Murder on the Rising Star” has the distinction of being the most troubled production in the series run. Aside from the diminishing budget issue, which is evident in many of the fleet-centric locales of later episodes, the script was rushed. Glenn Larson was on vacation in Hawaii at the time the script should have been in the planning stage. It took him nearly a week to decide on which story to use, which gave writers Jim Carlson and Terry McDonnell only 36 hours to make a final draft. Inadvertantly or not, larson had chosen a murder mystery story similar to a spec script written by Michael sloan. Sloan earns a story credit for the similarities.

What does the lower budget and rushed nature mean for “Murder on the rising Star?” In regards to the former, not so much. “Murder on the rising Star” is an effective bottle show with genuine tension that also manages to elabortate on the days after the colonies were destroyed by the Cylons. The script, on the other hand, has a death by a thousand paper cuts feel to it. It is surprisingly good for a script written in 36 hours, but there are many minor details that sink it if you scritunize even a little.

“Murder on the Rising Star” is a starbuck murder mystery. Yes, that does mean two Starbuck-centric stories in a row. Shades of the heavily Seven and Doctor laden sixth and seventh seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. The episode begins with Starbuck and Apollo playing a particularly heated game of Triad. Starbuck is repeatedly pummeled by Ortega, one of his opponents. Tempers flare, and they eventually come to blows. Sometime after the game, Ortega is found murdered with starbuck hurriedly trying to get off the Rising Star.

Motive and circumstantial evidence poins to Starbuck as the killer, so much so that he escapes from his prison cell at one point in order to escape the fleet because he thinks even his friends do not believe he is innocent. The script does and good job of creating tension. (predicting a certain slow speed, white ford Bronco chase some seventeen years later, too.) We certainly do not believe starbuck is guilty, but there is genuine peril as to how he will get out of this mess.

The truth is a guy named Karybdis, baltar’s former personal pilot, is hiding among the fleet under an assumed name to avoid a war crimes trial. Ortega learned his true identity and was blackmailing him. Karybdis decided to murder him. It was just a stroke of luck Starbuck caught the blame. Apollo takes Baltar off the prison barge under the guise that he will point out karybdis and clear Starbuck. This brings Karybdis out of hiding, as he will want to kill baltar to protect his identity, and Apollo captures him. With his confession, Starbuck is cleared.

There are some problems with this episode likely to do with the rushed nature of production. For one, it does feel strange Chameleon does not show up to support his son. In the real world sense, fred astraire is not going to show up for another go around, but introducing him in the previous episode puts their relationship fresh in our minds. One could reconcile chameleon’s con artist nature means he has no emotional attachments to Starbuck. The conclusion is kicking Starbuck while he is down, know? The audience has to assume Karybdis is taking advantage of Starbuck’s fued with Ortega to frame him. Otherwise, the murder looks like the convergence is a fortunate happenstance. So is Baltar just happening to be in custody. Speaking of which, Baltar taunts Starbuck that he has enemies on the prison barge. They will kill him before he reaches his cell. Which begs the question, why has baltar not been killed? Surely the man responsible for the genocide of the human race would be more despised than Starbuck. Why does starbuck get a full trial while Baltar was apparently tried and convicted by the Qorum on the spot?

A lot of things just do not make sense, but the biggest plothole is in the climax. Apollo is counting on Karybdis to sneak on board the shuttle to kill him and Baltar. He notices by the scale on the dashboard the cargo weight has increased by 175lbs, so he knows Karybdis is on board and takes off. How does Karybdis plan to kill Baltar and Apollo, land the shuttle, and got away without anyone knowing? There is no way he can pull it off, so the resolution is a cop out. Who is dumber, Apollo for coming up with it, or Karybdis for falling for it?

It is a nifty bit of casting for Brock Peters to star as Starbuck’s prosecutor. Aside from being a great character actor, peters portrayed as the falsely accused Tom Robinson in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

In spite of its flaws, “Murder on the Rising Star” is entertaining. There is genuine mystery that can distract from the contrived nature and continuity issues between episodes. I would suggest not thinking too hard about the details and just let the story carry you. “Murder on the rising Star” is certainly filler on a small scale, but it is not terrible.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Red Dwarf--"Back to Earth"

“Back to Earth” is a three part revival series made in 2009, a full ten years after the show ended. I have refereed to it as a miniseries before, but the new series set to air in 2012 is becing called the tenth, so back to earth is officially the ninth series. The eighth series cliffhanger is disregarded, as is apparently other bits of continuity. Rimmer is a hologram again, for instance. Nevertheless, ‘Back to Earth” is a love letter to fans with its numerous references to past episodes. Maybe a little too many, in fact.

The story opens nine years later. Kochansky is dead and holly has been damaged by a flood caused running a faucet left running for nearly a decade. Otherwise, the crew is older and more hardened, but still kicking. They are suffering from a water shortage. They discover the problem is a giant squid that has taken refuge in the water tank. The Dwarfers, sans Rimmer, dive into the tank in order to kill the squid, but barely escape with their lives. Once on the surface, the squid apparently vanishes--a big hint as to what it is--and a hologram, Katrina Bartikowski, appears. She is a former science officer on Red Darf. she announces she is going to shut down Rimmer to replace him. Her first mission is to open a rift to another universe to find a mate for Lister so they can revive the human race.

The rift sucks the Dwarfers into the real world of 2009 where Re d Dwarf is a television show. They learn that “Back to Earth” will be their final appearance, so they need to track down the creator of the show to beg for their lives. They swipe a copy of the DVD from a department store and follow the chapters to where they are supposed to go. Along the way, the meet crazed fans, Lister actor Craig Charles, and the creator himself in an over the top homage to Blade Runner.

The truth, which was hinted at by the squid’s disappearance, is this is all an illusion created by a relative of the despair squid the Dwarfers encountered years ago. This squid feeds off joy instead of sorrow, so it tempts Lister, heartbroken over the death of Kochansky, with the prospect of a relationship with actress Chloe Annett. He resists after learning the real kochansky way be alive back in reality. The Dwarfers return to their reality, wherein cat reveals he brought the squid onboard years ago in order to eat it.

“Back to Earth” relies heavily on nostalgia and tweaking obsessive science fiction geeks for laughs. The former would probably mean more if I had not spent the last seven weeks watching the show on a daily basis, but the former got a few knowing laughs out of me. I was mostly applying the gags to comic book geeks I have met over the years, but the analogy holds up. One definitely needs to be well versed in Red Dwarf lore to find much of the show funny. It helps to know about Craig charles’ unfortunate troubles with the law and substance abose, as well as Chloe Annett’s post-Red Dwarf. the final fifteen minutes or so is a direct homage to Blade Runner. I confess to not being a big fan of the film, so the alleged cleverness bypassed me completely.

Overall, I thought “{Back to Earth” was fun, but not very original. A despair squid, dimension jumping, and meeting alternate versions of the Dwarfers has been done numerous times throughout the show’s history. It is one thing to pepper the story with references to the past. It is something else to lift entire plot elements from past episodes and pass them off as something new. Still, it was fun to see most of the cast again. It was enough of a pleasure for me to loook forward to series ten. “Back to Earth” successfully revived the show, so it did its job.

Rating; *** (out of 5)