Friday, May 28, 2010

YouTube Theater: Star Trek Dubs

I can't stop laughing at these. Enjoy, courtesy of the Dayjob Orchestra.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

10 Secretly Great Episodes from TNG

Some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation are well remembered because they are so great (“The Best of Both Worlds”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “The Inner Light”). Some are remembered for being so bad (“Angel One”, “Shades of Gray”). Some are famous as defining character moments (“The Measure of a Man”, “Hollow Pursuits”, “Sins of the Father”) and still others are famous for their inventive storytelling (“Cause and Effect”, “Darmok”). But there are other great episodes that aren’t always remembered, they’ve fallen through the cracks of our collective consciousness as Trekk(ies/ers). Rewatching the series as I have been lately thanks to SyFy and BBC America, I’ve found quite a few episodes that I had forgotten how much I loved. Here is a list of some of those forgotten gems (in chronological order).

“Clues” (4x14)

The ship encounters a wormhole, and everyone aboard except for Data is knocked out for thirty seconds. They send a probe back to the planet they thought they had detected before the wormhole, and then they continue on their way. But before long, strange things start happening. A plant sample that Dr. Crusher is cultivating shows 24 hours of growth. Data begins acting strangely. Computer logs have been tampered with, transporter logs show 24 hours of extra cell growth, Worf has a broken wrist that’s been mended and no memory of breaking it, and boy is Data ever acting strangely. All the clues point to a missing day, and Data seems to know what’s happening, but he’s not talking.

This episode is a prime example of my favorite type of TNG show, the mystery. In fact, this episode is all about how much humans love a good mystery, and how they can’t resist trying to solve it, even when they know that they probably won’t like the answer. As the titular clues begin piling up, the viewer becomes just as invested in this mystery as the characters, longing to solve it, to find out what happened.

“Identity Crisis” (4x18)

Five years ago, on an away mission as part of the crew of the USS Victory, Geordi LaForge took part in an investigation into 49 missing Federation colonists. Now, all but two members of that away team are also missing, and the Enterprise is on its way back to that same planet to find out what happened to them. When they get there they find abandoned shuttle craft and torn Starfleet uniforms. Somehow, the missing crewmen and being transformed into aliens, and the same thing is happening to Geordi and his lady friend. Geordi now has to review the logs from the original away mission to find the answers to this mystery before he himself is transformed.

Remember that scene in Blade Runner where Deckard is using his computer to examine a photograph, moving through it and zooming in to find the clues that it contains. There’s something very compelling about that scene that I’ve never been able to fully explain to myself. You’re watching the wheels turn in someone’s head, extrapolating information, piecing together clues, trying to figure out what it all means. Geordi’s scenes recreating the away mission logs on the holodeck have that same indefinable element, as he locates a shadow that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone and extrapolates where it’s coming from. A mysterious humanoid figure, previously invisible appears, and there’s moment where we instinctively know that something bad is about to happen. It’s that tension that keeps the viewer riveted and makes me love this episode.

“Conundrum” (5x14)

The Enterprise is struck by a mysterious energy wave from an alien ship, and the entire crew gets amnesia. They retain enough knowledge to run the ship, but they have no idea who they are. They’re finally able to get some data from the computer, including their names and their immediate mission. The audience is immediately aware that something is wrong, because the personnel files list a Commander MacDuff as the First Officer and the mission files say that they are at war with a race called the Lysians, and they’re supposed to destroy their command center. But when they discover that the Lysians are about 100 years behind them technologically, they realize that things aren’t adding up. Turns out Commander MacDuff (pictured above with his human shell burned away, revealing his chewy nougat center) is a big fat liar, and a member of a race that really are at war with the Lysians and they just wanted the Enterprise to do their dirty work.

“Sorry about all those ships we destroyed. Our bad.”

This is an unusual episode, but it’s a lot of fun to watch the crew interacting with each other in strange ways, making incorrect assumptions about their relationships with each other. Worf thinks he’s in command, Ro and Riker think that they’re an item, and Data thinks that he’s a bartender. The same idea will be done again years later on Buffy the Vampire slayer in “Tabula Rasa”, only played for a lot more laughs. In any case, a very creative episode that was very well done.

“Power Play” (5x15)

Following a distress call to an uninhabited moon, the Enterprise discovers the remains of a 200 year old starship, the USS Essex. When Troi senses life on the moon, Picard sends an away team down to the planet via shuttle craft. The shuttle crashes, Riker breaks his arm, and O’Brien beams down with pattern enhancers to rescue the away team (why they don’t include pattern enhancers as part of the shuttle’s standard equipment, we’ll never know). Lightning strikes the enhancers, knocking everyone down (a stunt that Marina Sirtis did herself, breaking her tailbone in the process) and the unconscious crewmembers (except Riker) are entered by a trio of little floaty balls of light. Back aboard the Enterprise, the three alien possessed crewmembers take hostages in Ten-Forward, where they claim to be the ghosts of the crew of the Essex and demand that their remains be beamed aboard and given a proper burial so that they can rest.

I think it’s a rule now that every show, no matter what genre, has to have an episode with a hostage situation. This is definitely one of the more creative methods that I’ve seen, but still all the normal tropes are here. Picard trades himself as a hostage to get the injured hostages released. There’s a covert attempt to disable the hostage takers, which goes wrong. There’s a mother with a baby among the hostages, Keiko and Molly O’Brien. Considering that this is shortly after Molly’s difficult birth in “Disaster”, also in Ten-Forward, Keiko might want to consider avoiding the room from now on, bad things seem to keep happening to her there. And of course, there’s the heroic sacrifice in the end and the dramatic revelation that the captors aren’t who they say they are. But cliché’s aside, the reason this episode is so much fun is that the bad guys are wearing familiar faces. And any excuse to let Brent Spiner ham it up is okay by me.

“The Next Phase” (5x24)
While offering aid to a damaged Romulan science ship, Geordi and Ro are presumed lost in a transporter accident. However when they wake up back aboard the Enterprise, no one can see or hear them and they have the ability to pass through solid objects. Ro thinks that they’re dead and their ghosts, but Geordi isn’t so sure. And so the two have to solve the myster (there’s that word again) of what happened to them, all while watching their shipmates deal with their deaths and plan their memorial service.

There’s a lot of great character stuff here for Ro, as she explores her relationship with Picard (seen walking through her, above) along with her mixed feelings toward Riker, and his possible feelings toward her. Ro didn’t get that much character development that didn’t directly refer to her being Bajoran or her people’s plight with the Cardassians, so it’s nice to see her on her own here with her guard down. There’s also some great character stuff with Data and Geordi, as Data considers his friendship with him and what it means. But the best part I think is the stuff with Geordi and Ro. These are two characters that haven’t had much interaction with each other in the past, thrust together in a situation, clinging to each other as comrades and friends. The scene with the two of them at the end laughing together is really touching. I wish they would have developed their friendship more in future episodes.

“Frame of Mind” (6x21)

Riker is rehearsing a play aboard the Enterprise where he is playing a mental patient, when weird things start happening to him. People staring at him strangely in the halls, an alien crewmember that he’s never seen before keeps appearing, and a cut on his head that keeps reopening. Then he wakes up to find himself in a mental hospital for real, the mysterious alien is his doctor, and he’s told that he’s insane and his life aboard Enterprise is just a delusion. Then he wakes up on the Enterprise again and is told that the alien mental hospital was just a dream. What’s real and what isn’t? Is he crazy or is he being held prisoner?

I love these kinds of episodes that fuck with your head. We see all of the events from Riker’s perspective, so by the end we are just as unsure as he is as to what is actually happening. It’s a great character episode for Riker, something he didn’t get very many of, a great mystery, and it had a lot of dark and scary imagery that really worked well. It’s a fear that plays to all of us, being thought of as crazy and having no way to prove otherwise. Watching “Shutter Island” earlier this year, it reminded me a lot of this episode.

“Timescape” (6x25)

Picard, Troi, Data and LaForge are returning from a conference on Earth, traveling via runabout, when strange things begin occurring. Troi notices that the others all seem to freeze for a few seconds, as if being put on pause. One of the runabouts engines fails, drained of fuel, and the logs say that it’s been running continuously for 47 days. Some rotten fruit and some long fingernails later, they figure out that they are encountering pockets of space where time is either speeding up or slowing down. And when they return to Enterprise, they find it trapped in one of these pockets, seemingly during an attack by a Romulan Warbird.

Again, this episode breaks down into essentially a great mystery story, with a lot of really fun sci-fi tropes along the way. As the four of them move around aboard the frozen Enterprise, each new scene they encounter is another clue as to what is happening. The Enterprise is supplying power to the Romulan ship, but why? They’re beaming aboard injured Romulans, but why?

Dr. Crusher seems to have been shot while doing the robot, but why?

“Parallels” (7x11)

After returning from a bat’leth tournament, Worf starts noticing small changes on the Enterprise. People suddenly appear or disappear during conversations, Data’s eye color changes. As the Enterprise begins to investigate a sensor array close to the Cardassian border that is no longer transmitting data to the Federation, the changes that Worf observes become more pronounced. Suddenly he finds himself married to Counselor Troi, then he’s first officer and Riker is the captain. Cardassian ensigns, Wesley as tactical officer, cats and dogs living together, it’s crazy! They eventually trace the problem to a space anomaly that Worf encountered on the way back to Enterprise, turns out that Worf isn’t crazy, he’s just hopping between alternate universes. They make their way to the anomaly and after an attack from a Bajoran warship, it starts spitting out Enterprises like crazy, all of them from alternate universes. Worf flies his shuttle back into the anomaly, clicks his heels together three times, and before you know it everything is back to normal again?

Alternate universes are another one of my favorite sci-fi tropes. It’s all about ‘what if’, which is the question that you’ll find at the core of most great science fiction. The idea that every decision we make results in an alternate reality where the opposite decision was made, and that those decisions can butterfly effect in fantastic ways that we can only imagine, is tremendously interesting. This is also a good character episode for Worf, and set up the whole Worf/Troi relationship that persisted throughout the rest of the series. Now, I’ve never been a fan of Worf/Troi. To me, adding a relationship to a show that late in the game smacks of the old add-a-kid strategy. Things are getting stale? Shake them up a bit, add a cute kid or a talking animal with magic powers, start pairing people off for no reason. The whole thing is just a little to soap opera for me, and Star Trek is better than that. It doesn’t have to resort to cheap character gimmicks to tell interesting stories.

“Masks” (7x17)

The Enterprise is investigating a rogue comet, when strange alien artifacts start appearing throughout the ship. Turns out that the comet is actually some kind of alien archive, and it’s been traveling through space for 87 million years. It’s transforming the Enterprise into an alien city, and it’s transforming Data into its queen. Data begins to exhibit several personalities, all of them warning of the arrival of Masaka. When she wakes up, shit is going to go down. So they activate the transformation sequence to create Masaka’s temple, to try to get some dirt on her and summon her so they can convince her to stop turning the Enterprise into an Aztec yard sale. Everyone of Data’s personalities says that Korgano is the only one who can stop Masaka, but that he has stopped chasing her. Picard uses his archeology experience to figure out that Masaka and Korgano are like the sun and the moon, and uses that information to impersonate Korgano and convince Masaka to go back to sleep, which turns everything on the Enterprise back to normal.

This is probably my favorite episode on this list. It’s just so strange and yet so fascinating. When Data first starts exhibiting these other personalities, he looks up at the camera and says in a really creepy voice “Masaka is waking” right before a commercial break. It’s such a great WTF moment, and it really sets the tone for a lot of the strange stuff that happens later. It isn’t a very well received episode among the fans. Oddly enough, the thing I like the most about this episode, Brent Spiner’s performance, is the thing that most people point to when they shit on it, including Spiner himself. He apparently didn’t get as much prep time as he wanted for this performance and wasn’t happy with the end product, but I think that he does a wonderful job. A lot of the other criticism seems to be on the general weirdness of the story, which again I loved. Star Trek has always done such a great job of taking Science Fiction and making the elements relatable by drawing parallels to our modern day lives, but I don’t think that means that it can’t be weird too. Some of the best science fiction is the stuff that is just plain weird, and you can’t be afraid of that.

“Genesis” (7x19)

In Sickbay, Barclay has diagnosed himself with a fatal illness. Dr. Crusher assures him that he only has some alien flu, and gives him a treatment for it that involves activating dormant t-cells. Meanwhile on the bridge, the crew is testing a new weapons guidance system. One of the torpedoes they fire goes off course, so Picard and Data take a shuttlecraft to retrieve it. Aboard the Enterprise, the crew begins to behave strangely. Barclay is hyper, Troi starts complaining that it’s too cold and dry, Riker can’t concentrate, and Worf is acting extra aggressive and primitive. Worf attacks Troi, biting her on the cheek, and he attacks Dr. Crusher, spitting venom in her face. Three days later when Picard and Data return, they find the Enterprise in shambles, and the crew devolved into various primitive life forms. Riker is a caveman, Barclay is a spider, Troi is some kind of amphibian. Worf (pictured above) is some kind of proto-Klingon, and he’s marked Troi as his mate (hence the biting). Picard and Data figure out what’s going on thanks to Data’s cat, who has devolved into an iguana. Picard, who is devolving into a lemur at this point, has to distract Worf from trying to break into Sickbay to get to Troi so that Data can finish the cure and disperse it to the ship, which he does. In the end, Dr. Crusher names the new disease after Barclay and Troi clears her calendar for the next few days.

This is just a fun episode all around. It has humor, it has action, it has mystery, great special effects, and great character moments. It marks the directorial debut of Gates McFadden, as well as Barclay’s fifth and final appearance on the series. Worf and Troi’s relationship has developed to the biting stage, which is good for them. A lot of fans complain whenever any humor is injected into the show, and while I’ll agree that a lot of early episodes that tried it fell flat, this episode is a good example where it works. It isn’t forced, they aren’t trying to do gags, it’s just an unusual situation where characters are acting out of character in a way that’s funny. Riker trying to eat Picard’s fish, Data telling Picard that’s he’s transforming into a lemur or a pygmy marmoset. In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

YouTube Theater: Drew Carey's Green Screen Show

To celebrate YouTube's 5th birthday, I bring you another installment of YouTube Theater, where I share some of my favorite videos from the site. This time, I offer clips of the short-lived but brilliant follow up to Whose Line is it Anyway, Drew Carey's Green Screen Show. Enjoy.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Comics Review: “Green Arrow: Quiver”

In my effort to continue my comics education, I’ve decided to take a break from The Question and take a look at one of my other favorite characters from JLU, Green Arrow. And so what better place to start, I thought, then Kevin Smith’s run from 2001. Well, it isn’t the most insular of runs, with its many cameos and references to DC continuity, but it has a good reputation and I like Kevin Smith so it seems like a logical place for me to start.

Let me start off by saying that while I do like Kevin Smith, I’m not a super fan. In fact, I’ve only seen two of his movies (Mallrats and Dogma) along with all three “An Evening with Kevin Smith” DVDs. Actually, I’m probably more of a fan of those DVDs than I am of the movies. I think he’s a great storyteller on stage and he has such an everyman approach to the film making process that makes the behind-the-scenes stories that he tells very interesting. Plus, he’s funny. So while I’m a fan, I’m not going to bow down to the alter of the cult of Kevin Smith and immediately gush over anything that has his name on it. On the other hand, he has a bit of a negative reputation in comics for a variety of reasons, but since I’m not a regular comics reader I’m not going to be influenced by that either. These ten issues may have taken eight months to come out back in 2001, but I read them all over the course of a few days, so my experience with them is probably significantly different from someone who read them when they first came out. Take from that what you will.

Quiver tells the story of Oliver Queen’s mysterious return from the dead, and his return as Star City’s favorite emerald archer, the Green Arrow. With a ten year gap in his memory, and no idea why everyone keeps insisting that he’s dead, Ollie tries to go back to business as usual. But a few run-ins with the Justice League convince him to get to the bottom of the mystery of his return. One of the things I liked most about this book was all of the appearances by the other Justice Leaguers. Rather than detract from the main story, I felt like it was an organic way to establish setting and back story, not to mention a lot of great character moments. Batman especially has a great role in this, guiding Ollie along on his quest for answers. Ollie does eventually get the answers he’s seeking, and reunites with his son along the way.

The book reads more like a graphic novel than a trade paperback, because the issues flow together so seamlessly. The art by Phil Hester is very well done, with great splash pages and intricate character work that manages to convey real emotion. It’s a story about second chances, about reclaiming what’s been lost. It was a great read and it’s inspired me to pick up more Arrow books in the future.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Way Too Late Movie Review: “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

This is one of those movies that seem like such a big deal when it first comes out, but then a few months later no one even remembers it. In fact, I think that if I hadn’t put it on my Netflix queue back when it was still in theaters, I would have forgotten all about it as well. I remember being interested in it back then. The special effects looked good and it was a remake of a classic science fiction movie, which can be good or bad. But I have never seen the original so I didn’t carry any baggage with me into this experience, I kept an open mind. However, now that I’ve seen it, I’m beginning to understand why it disappeared from the public consciousness so quickly.

Keanu Reeves plays Klaatu, and alien who arrives on Earth in a giant glowing sphere that lands in the middle of Central Park. Jennifer Connelly plays Dr. Helen Benson, a scientist who is called in as part of a team, at first to deal with the aftermath of what they believe to be the inevitable impact by an object that will obliterate Manhattan, and then later to examine the alien. They determine that the alien has to be born into human form on Earth in order to survive on our planet. On the surface, Keanu Reeves seems perfect for this part. His stiff and stilted acting style seems tailor made for an alien in an unfamiliar human form. And I have to say that Reeves does a passable job. But where the movie starts to fall apart is in the decisions that the characters make. Dr. Benson decides to help Klaatu escape, but why? It seems like a nice thing to do but there’s no logic behind it, at the time she knows nothing about why he’s on Earth or what his intentions are. When Klaatu needs help, he calls Dr. Benson, but why? The two seem to instantly trust each other for no apparent reason.

Meanwhile in Central Park, a large creature stands guard over the sphere that Klaatu arrived in. Not quite organic and not quite fully mechanical, they call him GORT, which is an acronym for something that I couldn’t be bothered to remember. They shoot him with missiles, which do nothing. And then eventually they capture him by sealing him in a giant triangular container that they just happened to have on hand and that just happens to fit him perfectly.

Elsewhere, Dr. Benson is chauffeuring Klaatu around along with her young stepson, played by the next Karate Kid, Jaden Smith. We learn that she’s a widow, and that the boy’s father was in the Army. He’s angry, and he thinks that the Army should just kill the aliens, even if they don’t mean any harm, just in case. But off course, Klaatu does mean us harm. He’s come to save the Earth, not for humans, but from them. Smaller spheres begin appearing all over the planet, collecting animal specimens. And Dr. Benson decides that the only way to save humanity is to convince Klaatu to stop it all. She brings him to John Cleese, a professor who tries to convince Klaatu that humanity is worth saving, that we can change or ways, but only at the precipice of destruction. Klaatu seems to consider it, but then the Army shows up, thanks to the kid who called them. And again, more bad decisions. Klaatu, Benson and the kid take off into the woods. Why does she keep putting this kid in danger? Why did she bring him in the first place when she went to pick up Klaatu? Why not leave him at the professor’s house here, where he’ll be safe instead of running out into the open where Army helicopters are trying to capture them? Benson gets captured but Klaatu and the kid escape. Klaatu saves the kid from falling of a bridge, and instantly the kid starts helping him. The same kid who tried to turn him in not a minute earlier.

Meanwhile GORT is getting tired of being poked and prodded and starts wrecking shit. He turns into a swarm of tiny machines that start moving through the Eastern seaboard like a cloud, eating up everything along the way. Benson convinces the Secretary of Defense to let her try and talk to Klaatu to convince him to stop. The kid takes Klaatu to his father’s grave and asks him to resurrect him. When Klaatu says he can’t, the kid gets pissy again. Benson shows up and has a heart to heart with the kid and everyone has a good cry. In the end, Klaatu sacrifices himself to save the Earth.

The special effects were good and the acting wasn’t bad, but the plot is full of so many holes that I found it hard to really get into the movie. So while I wouldn’t say it was a total waste of time, I wouldn’t recommend it either.

My Netflix Rating: Three out of Five Stars