Friday, May 15, 2015

831. If Harry Shearer really is done...

If Harry Shearer really is done with The Simpsons I can think of two things that might or should happen as a result.  Here they are:

1) Don't recast the characters he helped make iconic.  I mean seriously, the voice cast on The Simpsons is as iconic as anything else about the show, and it's been the same since the very beginning.  You could do mimics, or change the voices of all Shearer's character entirely...The better, the best option is to retire those characters.  The Simpsons is known for its sprawling cast.  It hasn't added many new characters in years, and even if it doesn't now, it could easily survive a trimming.  Part of the reason so many fans think, have thought for years that the show has been stale, stagnant, is that nothing has changed for years.  Every time something does change, it comes off as a publicity stunt.  Think of this as an opportunity to prove everyone wrong, once and for all.  I mean, South Park survived losing Chef (even though he was probably the best thing about it).  Shearer doesn't even voice any of the main characters.  And The Simpsons already survived losing its best voice actor, Phil Hartman, and retired his characters, right?  If worst come to worst, simply bring on Kelsey Grammer full-time.  That would be a challenge.  But it could also be the Sylar-ing of Sideshow Bob.  I think I could live with that, though.

2) This is a sign that The Simpsons is finally winding down.  Finally losing one of the iconic voice actors, after incredibly keeping all of them for twenty-six seasons, is already historic.  But if they've lost one, chances are becoming better that they will lose more.  And as I've already suggested, The Simpsons is nothing if not its voice cast plus everything else.  Emphasis on voice cast.  The show will end.  I'm not saying this because I'm gleeful about the prospect.  But it is inevitable.  And now we have a better idea of how it will happen.  And it seems pretty obvious now, doesn't it?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

830. I was right but I wasn't right about these Star Trek episodes...

I've been committed to writing what I should probably start referring to as recommendations rather than outright reviews of every Star Trek episode for a few years now.  I happen to be a fan of the whole franchise, so I consider myself to be in a unique position to be fair to every series.  Part of the reason I've undertaken this task is because far too often Star Trek fans wear their biases on their sleeves.  If they hate a series, or particularly loved one, they can't even pretend to be objective.  And that's what I try to be.

I'm calling them recommendations rather than reviews because really, I can't be bothered to do the whole review thing.  This is too big a task to do such a tedious thing for every episode.  I don't want to analyze the whole story, scene for scene, but rather talk about what did or didn't work in it.  And because I'm approaching this as a guide to the whole franchise, I like to be inclusive of the whole franchise, with references to various series as points for comparison, as well as discussing the relative merits of an episode for the series in which it airs.

All that being said, recommendation over review provides me with an additional opportunity, because it's just as likely that anyone who watches any TV-related thing these days will binge.  This is not a new phenomenon, but it's an increasingly popular one.  So anyone watching any Star Trek at all will probably not cherry-pick but rather view en masse, episode after episode, seasons and indeed series at a time.  And they won't be consulting whatever I think along the way.  The point, then, is to give them perspective.  A recommendation helps put the episode in context, a review thinks the whole thing is a matter of life and death.

And really, it isn't.  Two episodes I've covered I actually had the chance to watch with fresh eyes recently, and the results were something different from what I recorded in my recommendations.  This is worth talking about for a number of reasons.  Opinions change.  That's something I think we all forget.  But when we put something down in words, we begin to think they take on permanence.  How silly of us.  The version of you that hated something yesterday might very well give way to a version of who that will love it tomorrow, not because the thing itself changed but because you began to think differently of it.  When I first heard U2's "Beautiful Day," it was accompanied by the music video, and Bono was trying especially hard to be a rock god in it.  I hated it.  I thought Bono was beyond obnoxious, and it created a giant rift between me and the Irish band.  I thought I'd stick by that opinion forever.  But soon enough, I came around, and actually, U2 became once and for all one of my favorite rock bands ever.  And I even love "Beautiful Day."  (No, I haven't revisited the music video.)

Two episodes from the original Star Trek series' second season, "Catspaw" and "I, Mudd," are what I'm really here to talk about.  "Catspaw" has the distinction of being one of the rare episodes I offered no basis at all for recommendation, while "I, Mudd" I wrote mostly about Harry Mudd and not much about the rest of the episode around him.  Here are some additional thoughts on both of them, although I won't be changing my previously established thoughts, which can be found here and here respectively.

"Catspaw," I originally argued, was a bad Halloween episode, specifically created for that holiday and as such easy to completely disregard.  The thing is, it's another in a long line of episodes throughout the franchise involving beings with unusual abilities messing around with Starfleet officers, and in some ways a unique one in that there are two such beings who can be played against each other.  Besides a Q episode or two, this never happens.  These were beings that uniformly had to be bested at the very end of the episode, and certainly never outsmarted.  In that sense, "Catspaw" has a good reason to watch.  But it's also somewhat completely ludicrous in concept, the very essence of why some fans will always say "Spock's Brain" or "Threshold" should be summarily dismissed (ask a Star Trek fan about those two).

"I, Mudd," meanwhile, does in fact have a lot to say about Harry Mudd, and while I gave it a generous recommendation, it eventually degenerates in full practice into a ludicrous display every bit the equal of if not worse than "Catspaw."  In order to defeat a civilization of artificial beings, Kirk persuades his crew to perform, essentially, experimental theater.  It becomes quite absurd.  In fact, anyone still looking for some reason to explain why the whole series had to fight an uphill battle to become a lasting phenomenon need look no further than "I, Mudd" for an explanation.  It's incredibly hard to take seriously.  And why did I, in that original recommendation?  Because I focused on the best element, which is Harry Mudd, another atypical element for the series that in that sense pushed it to something with a less limited appeal than was typical (i.e. Kirk and friends sit around bemused or in peril for an hour in general sci-fi mayhem), being a guy who stood his ground rather than backed down, being as much hero as villain (sort of, most of all in this appearance, anyway), having a killer mustache.

But on the whole, "Catspaw" is still as easy to dismiss as I originally did, and "I, Mudd" deserves less applause than I originally gave it.  Is there more to say about both than I did, and have?  Of course.  Tomorrow I might have more things to say about both of them, and really, no one will be interested.  People will either have seen what I've had to say and be interested, or they won't.  The point is, I've provided a point of reference.  What other people do with my thoughts is now in their hands, not mine.  And really, those people are just as likely to think something completely different than to agree with me.  That's another reason to write about an episode on the level of a recommendation rather than a review, because a recommendation is more capable of being objective than a review, which by definition is subjective, no matter how hard a critic might try to make it sound otherwise.  I personally tend to hate reviews, because most critics are painfully subjective, and they don't seem to realize or care.

So when I get to say an episode is generally terrible, it's easy to explain why, and when I get to explain how an episode that's generally regarded as terrible isn't, I get to talk about the things I like about it, that reflect well on the series, the franchise, storytelling in general...The thing is, when I say I like Star Trek, I'm recommending it as a storytelling vehicle, because I love good storytelling.  The best way to incur my wrath?  Fail at that.  Because at that point, I no longer see the point of the thing.

Monday, May 04, 2015

A to Z 2015 - Reflections

As some of you may have caught, I nearly didn't participate in A to Z this year because my mother died at the end of March.  In fact, the original material I did pursue at the start of the month was abandoned because I'm still trying to deal with her death, and sometimes it's a lot harder than other times.  Everyone dies.  But the awareness of death is a personal matter you can absolutely not estimate ahead of time.  She started dying, technically, in the fall of 2010, when she was first diagnosed with cancer, and there have been many rough patches along the way, including last April, which was the start of the traumatic end process...

I ended up switching topics to Star Trek, and that was hugely appropriate.  Even though she didn't become one of those die hard fans who typify interest in the franchise, my mother was one of its original viewers, and every time I popped in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, she'd cry when Spock dies.  (Except the last time.  But at that point, most of her was changing.  I clung and still do to the lasting remnants of who and what she had been throughout her life.)  In a very real sense, I owe my interest in Star Trek to her.

This being May the Fourth, however, I'm not going to continue talking about Star Trek, but rather switch topics once again.  Hey, why not?  Star Wars was a dominant feature of my childhood.  I grew up with four siblings, and Star Wars was one of the few things that united all of us.  We watched the original trilogy all the time.  It got to the point where my mother would literally fall asleep every single time we watched it, and we joked that she did see the whole thing, but only cumulatively speaking.  In hindsight it's probably clear that she was never quite as enthusiastic about Star Wars as we were.

But in her last year, my dad and I still got her to watch most of the movies all over again, and she was perfectly fine with that.  Star Wars had become a constant for her.

I've posted this video before, from How I Met Your Mother, how when Ted tries to understand how Stella has never seen Star Wars before, he and Marshall absolutely cannot understand it.  (For me, it's still baffling, and I absolutely mean it, that there was such a tremendous backlash to the prequels.  But people like what's spontaneous, a discovery.)  Here's the video again:

(It also baffles me that people hated How I Met Your Mother's ending.  But that's a topic for another day.)

Different people have different experiences.  This is sometimes extremely hard to appreciate, and very people are willing to admit this.  When we're forced to confront our differences, we also discover how different we really are.  But sometimes the differences are not as great as we think they are.

Taking part in A to Z for another year, no matter the circumstances and however much my experience was affected by those circumstances, or how little other people know Star Trek compared to me...this was actually the best experience I've had with it to date.  In past years I didn't really understand how it was supposed to work.  I don't mean in relation to others, but for me.  The moment I let go of my own expectations, I started to have fun.  I couldn't ask for better than that.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

828. I love you, Robert Downey Jr., but...

In an interview he gave during the promotion for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Robert Downey Jr. brought up how he generally doesn't care for independent filmmaking.  Read about it here.

Now, I may be misconstruing the guy, but...really?  Indy filmmaking saved your career, buddy.  It was buzz from movies like 2003's The Singing Detective, 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and for me personally appearances in 2007's Lucky You and Charlie Bartlett where I began to like him at all.  This was all post-scandal/rehab/Robert-Downey-Jr.-is-dead-to-Hollywood! material.  I know he came up from the '80s, but I have never seen an '80s Robert Downey Jr. movie.  There are people now who probably aren't particularly aware that he's ever been known for anything but Iron Man.

And don't get me wrong: I'm absolutely glad that the guy had this remarkable comeback.  He's the best thing (aside from Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson) about the Avengers movies, and easily the reason they became so big in the first place.  Tony Stark, in the hands of Robert Downey Jr., is absolutely the second coming of Jack Sparrow.  Because of Iron Man, he's gotten to make other successful films, too (Tropic Thunder, the Sherlock Holmes series, Due Date).

It just seems that he's started to let it go to his head.  It's natural.  Any sustained success, for anyone, usually leads to this.  It's the way to world works.  But it's also disappointing, because when you looked up the definition of "humble," just a few years ago, you would have seen this guy's face next to it.  He took it in stride, seemed completely grateful at this unlikely turn of events.  And I'm not saying he needed to feel grateful or that he should feel humble, but...seriously dude, some of your best movies were low-budget, little-seen flicks.  I don't know if he had miserable experiences making those movies, but for me it's hard to imagine Robert Downey Jr. without movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Charlie Bartlett in his credits.  I'd watch The Soloist a thousand times before caring about whether or not his latest movie was easy to make, had a huge budget, and made hundreds of millions.

Does this diminish his credibility?  Yeah.  That's what I'm saying.  Certainly you can't expect everyone to like the craft of what they do.  And this is a guy who has spent most of his life making movies.  But it also seems like he's saying, now, that it's only worth it if, yes, it's easy to make, has a big budget, and makes hundreds of millions of dollars.  Thereby diminishing a large portion of his legacy in roles other than those spent in tin suits.

But the thing is, it doesn't really matter what Robert Downey Jr. thinks.  It's his job to make movies.  What happens to those movies once he's made them is no longer in his hands.  (This begins to relate to a discussion that has unfolded elsewhere, but I won't get much more into that here.)  So maybe whatever he's saying in press statements now doesn't matter after all.  He's also had people chuckling recently because of how suavely he handled walking away from a different interview that wanted to touch on a different aspect of his past entirely.  Whatever.  Let's talk Iron Man!  And move on...

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A to Z 2015: Star Trek Episodes "Zero Hour"

"Zero Hour"
Star Trek: Enterprise

Bam!  Remember Quantum Leap, in which a dude keeps leaping into other people's lives, and at the end of the episode, once he and/or they have learned whatever it is they were supposed to learn, he leaps once again (always trying to get home!)?

(It's just too bad that Quantum Leap is otherwise completely irrelevant to Enterprise.  Except for "Detained," which guest stars the great Dean Stockwell.)

What I'm getting around to here (eventually!) is how "Zero Hour" ends.  It dumps Captain Archer from the frying pan into the fire.  This is the end of the season-long Xindi arc.  He seems to have triumphed spectacularly, bravely, and given his life in the process.  But the episode continues!  He finds himself surrounded by Nazis.  Some of them being alien Nazis!

And really, that would have been a completely awesome model for the series, having season-long arcs, and at the very end, tossing everyone into another big adventure to be explored next season (James Bond will return in Card Sharks on a Plane!).

Except the series ended after one additional season, and that final season had a gazillion mini-arcs, none of which helped elucidate whatever happened to Porthos.  The Alien Nazis turned out to be part of the abrupt end to the Temporal Cold War arc, one of Enterprise's many controversial elements (Did Hoshi just swear in Klingon???).  I've struggled with "Storm Front" for years.  I think it's both extremely clever and somewhat grossly disappointing.  But sometimes I err on the side of extremely clever, for reasons that if I went into them now you would butcher me like electronic cattle.

(It's a thing.)

And yes, Tim got married to Zola, and Joe officiated at the wedding, which was held at sea, and they were all the time criticizing each other's taste in movies.  You see, Joe has this unfortunate predilection for professional wrestling, and in a meta twist he likes this particular movie fictional wrestler Terry Stevens starred in called The Last Stand (based, as it sounds, on General Custer's ridiculous mustache), and Tim did say he admired Joe's taste, and Zola did groan, and Ted did hold the blue french horn again, and Robin was the mother, but the replacement mother.  And the villagers rejoiced!

(Terry Stevens and The Last Stand "exist" insofar as I did not just make that up for the purposes of reminding everyone about something they were eager to forget about, so much so that they forgot about it before it even began.  And now the groans grow louder...)

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A to Z 2015: Star Trek Episodes "Year of Hell"

"Year of Hell, Parts 1 and 2"
Star Trek: Voyager

Hey, you remember Battlestar Galactica, right?  Not the original version, which was more or less a blatant knockoff of Star Wars (this time with more Lorne Greene!), but the reboot, which was more or less a blatant knockoff of..."Year of Hell" (this time with more Edward James Olmos!).

Ha!  Just kidding.  But seriously, the early episodes of Battlestar Galactica (as opposed to the later episodes, which were much more about revealing secret Cylons [no one suspects the Cylon invasion!]) were all about humanity's desperate bid to survive against incredible odds, real grim and gritty presented with grim and grit (and sexy, sexy Cylons).  And genre fans loved it.  Battlestar Galactica was, in short, the latest in a long series of genre programming that was, basically, Not Star Trek.

By 1994, just when everyone thought Star Trek was going to finally become cool, Star Trek's own fans began turning on it.  In effect, Star Trek, which was already massively uncool to the general population, became uncool to its own fans.  These deserters started seeing how genre programming was being done by other people, and began to consider Star Trek outdated.  Does it matter that after Next Generation left the air, this left Deep Space Nine, which did make a conscious effort to switch things up?  Not at all, silly person asking questions to someone typing without the ability to hear you and thus must conjure your existence into being!  You see, Deep Space Nine was seen as a ripoff of Babylon 5.  Mostly because, y'know...they stations.  And stuff.

Emphasis on "and stuff."

So when Voyager rolled around and pretended to change things up even further but really rebooted back to what Next Generation and the original series had been doing all along, the fans rolled their eyes further into their head, causing a massive migraine that did not dissipate until Star Trek Into Darkness.

Ha ha!

Basically, Voyager pulled an evil trick.  It pretended it was going to be all grim and gritty, but then, quite evilly, made Captain Janeway able to make peace with a bunch of Federation dissenters and make one big happy crew...stranded decades from home, a lifetime away at first estimate.  What to do, what to do???

"Year of Hell" was the two-part episode that had a look at what it would have been like for a true worst-case scenario to occur (unlike the episode "Worst Case Scenario," which merely had a look at what would have happened if those pesky Federation dissenters, the Maquis, had decided they hated Janeway's hairdo as much as everyone else).  Gradually, everything went wrong.  The ship fell to pieces.  The crew splintered.  Janeway ran out of coffee.  Tuvok went blind and thus could no longer...(never mind about that!).

Basically, substituting Seven for Number Six (imagine that!), "Year of Hell" is exactly what Battlestar Galactica would be (for a handful of episodes, as well as the perpetual grumpiness of Adama) years later.

We're right back at the start!  Yay!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A to Z 2015: Star Trek Episodes "The Xindi"

"The Xindi"
Star Trek: Enterprise

In the third season premiere of Enterprise, the Xindi arc officially kicks off.  Technically it began with the second season finale, "The Expanse," in which the horrific terrorist attack on Earth occurs and Archer is asked to undertake the dangerous mission to thwart, if possible, any follow-up.

At the time, I read a bad review of this episode because it seemed like Star Trek, instead of seizing the opportunity to do something bold and new (relatively speaking, for a season billed as one complete arc; although Deep Space Nine more or less featured the Dominion War throughout its final two seasons, there were many episodes therein that did not feature material related to the conflict) the show felt like it was going in a ho-hum direction as Archer and Trip negotiate with an alien who doesn't feel significant enough for such an important occasion.

(Yeah; by this point it was painfully clear that everyone was ready to give Star Trek a good, long rest, if there was going to be a grand revival at all.  Fortunately there turned out to be one.)

But here we are all the same, and by the time we get our first look at the Xindi, in the episode called "The Xindi," we do in fact dive directly in, meeting the ruling Council, all the key players including the scientist Degra, later to be heavily featured (especially in one of the season's best, "Stratagem").  And by the way, we see these guys first and last thing this episode, and at this point they're nowhere near interacting with Archer directly.  Which does happen to be a bold departure for Star Trek.

These are the five Xindi species: the Reptilians (lead villains), Insectoids (back-up villains), Arboreals (first of the sympathetic ones), Primates (Degra is one of these), and Aquatics (along with the Insectoids, one of two completely CGI species within the bunch).  There had been six species, but the Avians became extinct in the cataclysmic events that led to the attack on Earth...

The episode also features the debut of the MACOs (Military Assault Command Operation), who are a detachment of soldiers meant to support Archer's mission (presumably limiting the possibility of redshirt syndrome, although some MACO do in fact die during the season).  Among the actors playing these guys are Daniel Dae Kim (later to be featured on Lost) and Steven Culp (who at the time was making a career of being the MVP of recurring character actors, being featured in such capacity on The West Wing and, most significantly, JAG).


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