Star Trek Discovery (SUPER QUICK REVIEW) Ep, 7: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

Wanted to catch-up on my reviews before the finale, but due to a variety of circumstances (including prepping to launch a Star Trek Adventures narrative roleplaying game podcast featuring actors and comedians called Star Trek: Redundancy, coming soon from GarbageProductions.net!) I only had time to write some quick thoughts: full review of the finale coming tomorrow!

  • Felt the most like a classic Trek of anything we’ve seen, while still carrying on with the meta plot
  • Finally gave us more Klingons
  • Still hate that design
  • Interesting seeing Saru in the role of the aggressor
  • Explanation for space madness best we’ve seen, almost ever, in Trek – the fact that Saru is constantly feeling his flight reflex is truly tragic and a neat detail to learn about the character
  • Oh Burnyler/Tyham…you’re gonna implode so hard in the finale
  • The admiral continues to be a fairly ‘meh’ character, though I do love remembering that everyone in Starfleet has hand-to-hand training (and love that Discovery has kept it in the Kirk style)
  • Stamets back to being cranky is good, though makes last episode seem like a gift of convenience rather than a legitimate character shift
  • Love that he’s still out of time – calling Cadet Tilly ‘Captain’ was a beautiful little moment.  Can likely also work as a bridge to future Trek content (Borg, etc) if they need it.
  • That’s an interesting thought: maybe the Discovery will become capable of time travel, allowing it to realize its anthology show ambitions without actually sacrificing the crew and the ship. We’ll have to see.
  • The problem with the show running as heavily serialized as it was early on is that the filler episodes REALLY feel like it. The away mission was interesting-ish, but felt like much ado about nothing (though the ending was pretty rad)

 

Predications going into the finale: either full Tyler betrayal or confirmation to the audience that he’s the a double agent

  • Mirror Universe either directly shown or Stamets gets switched out
  • Probably a death…hopefully not Stamets’ boyfriend Dr. Culber. We know Tilly is safe now as she is a captain in the future, but that was a pretty safe conclusion
  • Love hearing folks I know from the Toronto theatre scene on the bridge getting names and more screen time…makes me worried for their safety: killing regular minor crewmembers is a time-honoured tradition and a way to keep your core cast safer longer…hang in there, bridge crew.

In any event, I’m excited to see what a mid-season finale looks like for this show!

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Star Trek Discovery, Ep 7: Magic To Make The Sanest Man In The World Go Mad

Star Trek Discovery Ep, 7: Magic To Make The Sanest Man In The World Go Mad

Let’s Do The Timewarp Again

Some of Star Trek’s greatest stories have taken place in a timeloop (you can kill the cast and blow up the ship SO MANY TIMES) and Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad is no exception: we get lots of dramatic deaths, ‘this could only happen in the timewarp’ romantic actions, some fun character moments, and the best example yet of the crew working together as one to solve a problem with all their combined wit and ability (feeling the most like a classic Trek of any episode to-date).  There’s still plenty of weirdness (Harry Mudd’s helmet…?), space whales, and a disco party on the Disco, and it all amounts to a fun, engaging episode that proves Discovery is capable of great one-offs as well as serialized stories.

Spoilers Follow

Romance is in the Air

Discovery, being a shorter season than traditional 22 episode Trek seasons, occasionally needs to speed up certain events or relationships in order to make them work (Ash Tyler’s immediate welcome and position aboard the ship, etc), but the show makes great use of the timeloop to rapidly advance Burnham and Tyler’s relationship via the time-displaced Stamets.  Keeping Stamets out of the timeloop due to his interfacing with the spores is a handy device (there’s always gotta be one person who knows it’s looping – Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, etc) and allows the growth that occurs in each loop to actually affect the world moving forward.  Usually the progress made during time loops or alternate timelines is wiped away (though usually leaving a key item or memory behind), but having Stamets on-hand to fill everyone in allows us to keep the broad-strokes and advance the Burnler (Tynham?) romance in a condensed timeframe.

Now, if the predictions of Tyler’s true intentions we’ve discussed here in posts-past prove true, this super-condensed-timeframe relationship actually makes a lot of sense: if Tyler is a double agent, this highly-specific , high-pressure situation allows us to reasonably believe he and Burnham have grown much closer without having to question how long he can hold up the facade.  If that’s the way we’re going, it’s a clever bit of business.  With the mid-season break approaching, I suspect we’ll know sooner rather than later.

Stamets 2.0

Anthony Rapp is getting to flex his charming-wacky-guy muscles a bit as Stamets is experiencing heightened euphoria after interfacing with the spores.  I’ll miss the snark, if indeed it is gone forever, but in the interim it’s a fun take.  He also now has an implant that lets him interface without getting impaled, which is nice.  I was having a hard time believing they’d just keep letting that happen every time they needed to jump.

Still no word on the Mirror-verse Stamets, but stay tuned.

Harry Mudd: Murderer

So, Rainn Wilson promised us a more bloodthirsty Harry Mudd and boy did he deliver.  Mudd’s revenge on Lorca involved a fun montage of him killing the captain repeatedly (though I wish there had been more variety like the teleporter kill than the over-used disintegration), and watching him conduct the teleporters like a symphony was a blast.  It sits somewhat oddly with the silly tone of the original character, who was seen more as a nuisance than a threat, and easily ranks as one of the bigger ‘grimdark’ takes on a character the show has delivered…and yet…Mudd was SELLING WOMEN when we first met him (women he’d given a drug to make more beautiful, no less…ugh).  The danger, and I found myself guilty of this while watching, is in taking this Mudd’s violent actions as at odds with his character – they aren’t- rather than at odds with the tone of his original episodes.  If you’d told me that Harry-fucking-Mudd was going to be the Khan to Isaacs’ Lorca, I would have laughed you out of the room, but it works surprisingly well; Lorca is a dour, driven man and it’s fun seeing his arch enemy (until the Klingons come back around…) be someone who has fun.  He is also defeated in a classic sting, which is delightfully appropriate, right down to the Agatha Christie-style full cast explanation of ‘how we conned you’.  I don’t know that we’ll see Mudd again this season (great tying him back to his constantly estranged wife), but even if we don’t, this has been a great use of a classic character.

Space Whale

I’ll never stop loving that this show refers to wacky space phenomenon in the vaguely exhausted way that my nerd friends and I do.

“Wait, what thing?”
“Oh, you know that space whale thing from that one episode?”
“Right! The space whale!”

Having Saru desparately trying to give the science-y version is a joy.  More of this forever, please.

Star Trek Discovery, Ep 6: Lethe

Star Trek: Discovery Episode Six “Lethe”

   Lethe is an interesting oddity in Discovery so far, in that it feels the most like a stand-alone episode we’ve seen to date.  We get to see some major character growth from Burnham, see more of Sarek’s history, and gain further insight into Lorca’s state of mind, but ultimately the episode feels more like classic Trek than anything we’ve seen so far…and that’s both a good and bad thing.  Fundamentally, this episode is fine; nothing outstanding, nothing damning…which is a refreshing sign of stability from a series still in flux (despite the recent announcement of renewal for Season Two, something thought impossible just before launch).  Just don’t expect to be blown away.
Fan buzz on the ‘net following this episode was mostly focused on the problematic nature of Discovery being a prequel series and with good reason: the show has consistently integrated modern tech and favored modern sci-fi tropes like holograms into an era in Trek where we know these things don’t exist.  In the J.J. Abrams films, we get an Original Series redux that looks and feels how we now imagine future tech, but Discovery is set in the Prime Timeline of the TV shows and original movies: they still carry archaic phaser pistols and use flip out communicators, yet also teleport around the ship, communicate using holograms and have a fully functioning holodeck.
Not to mention a teleportation spore drive…
Ultimately, in order to have an enjoyable, modern show, we fans of the classic Trek shows just need to accept that the design of Trek and it’s technology has been soft rebooted, but not the continuity (sigh, even the Klingons…).  Star Wars suffered a similar re-design in the prequel trilogy, where everything was slicker and shinier, a far-cry from the lived-in grit of the Original Films (happily remedied in the new films); however, in Wars the re-design lost a fundamental element of tone and style, whereas this design reboot actually moves to re-position Trek in the future of viewers in 2017.  Given that my fucking smartphone can double as a VR simulator and tablets are now a dime-a-dozen, tech that was futuristic in Deep Space Nine (iPads) and Next Generation (holodeck) either are our reality or not-far-off…thus, to keep Trek feeling futuristic, we need to keep pace with modern technology, even when dealing with a prequel (hell, if we pay too much attention to everything the Original Series set up, we have to content with a large portion of the world having been ruled by a genetically augmented Ricardo Mantalban back in 1992…granted, I’d take Khan over Trump, but still…).
Trek is about our future, even when it’s about Trek’s past…and loathe as we are to lose some things or to see future-tech incorporated early in the Trek timeline, it’s a necessary evolution.  Wars has always been a fable of a mythological past, Trek has always been predictive science fiction about the future: both new iterations reflect that and I suspect a modern Trek show that featured design of the 60s would feel a parody of itself.  Strange though the design reboot may feel, it’s for the best.

Also, apparently the Discovery, science and secret black ops vessel, has t-shirts that say ‘DISCO.’  I…what?  This is right up there with the Klingon redesign for baffling choices.  Does this mean the Enterprise has shirts that say ‘ENTER’?  Does Janeway have a ‘VOYAG’ shirt in a drawer of shame somewhere?  Or do you only get one if you ship’s name can be truncated to a cute pun?  There’s so much I need to know about these shirts, but I suspect we’ll never know…

Full spoilers follow

The Problem with Sarek

Contrary to my feelings about the design reboot, the focus on Sarek continues to be vexing at best and frustrating at worst.  Lethe finally brings in a mention of Spock, as we learn that Sarek prevented Burnham from joining the Vulcan Expeditionary to leave room for Spock (also considered not Vulcan, as a half-human), who in turn rejects the Expeditionary to join Starfleet, meaning Sarek’s sacrifice of Burnham’s career was for nothing.  At work here is the idea that Sarek is seeking to prove that humans and Vulcans are not so dissimilar, which tracks given his human wife, half-human son, and now – in this new series – human ward Burnham…but the question that the show has done little to prove is: “Do we need it?”
Currently, the answer is a resounding: no.
I was damn excited when I heard that James Frain was going to be playing Sarek in Discovery, remembering Sarek as a complicated and interesting character from Next Generation that can bring interesting perspective to episode plots while also loosely tying the show to classic series.  I assumed, prior to the premise announcement that he raised Burnham, that he would be a recurring guest-star similar to Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd.  Instead, he was chosen to be a pivotal father-figure, even given a weird, cross-galaxy, permanent mind-meld with Burnham.  Up until now, we’ve basically seen the Spock story replayed (hell, even child Burnham at the Vulcan Academy looked like the Spock at the Vulcan Academy scene from the 2009 Star Trek film) and it feels…off.  Any Vulcan could have served this purpose, but instead we fall into the ‘One Degree of Separation’ trope of characters having to be connected to everything of note.  The mere lack of mention of Burnham by Spock is so incredibly bizarre to begin with, that piling more baggage on Sarek also feels disingenuous.  At the moment of his death in this episode, Sarek is only thinking about Michael Burnham?  BULLSHIT.  We know he’s a shitty dad, but his and Spock’s entire arc was Spock coming to understand the depth of emotion present not only in his half-Vulcan heart, but that of his fellow Vulcans, most of all his father; but this scene suggests that Sarek cares more about Burnham than Spock…which would be TOTALLY FINE if he was any Vulcan but Sarek.  Hell, make him Sarek’s brother.  Problem solved.  But instead, we get a pile-on onto a character that we only really cared about in connection to an iconic character that isn’t present in this show.
The good news coming out of this is that Burnham has started acting like a full person now, which is a delightful change of pace: Sonequa Martin-Greene is charming and capable, but all too often seems to get hamstrung into being quiet and intense (happened for several seasons in The Walking Dead before her genuinely touching final episode) and it’s nice to see her getting to embrace the elements of the character that are most engaging.
We finally have a hero to root for (other than poor, lovable Tilly, who is definitely this show’s Wesley Crusher, but with less screen-time and better lines)…which we’re going to need, because Lorca is definitely not okay…

The War Captain

Lorca’s storyline this week further explores his damage, bringing in clearer elements of PTSD while still refusing to let him off the hook for his obsessions.  It’s a delicate balance, but I’m glad the show kept him in the role of manipulator and fanatic, despite his trauma.  When visited by Admiral Cornwall (who is also a psychologist? Oh, Starfleet…) Lorca gets to play romantic lead, rekindling the on-again, off-again relationship the Admiral implied existed last episode.  After a night of scotch and romancing, Lorca awakes with a start to find someone in his bed and starts choking her while pointing a phaser to her head.  Cornwall realizes Lorca was just manipulating her as a smoke screen for his deteriorating mental health and does something few Starfleet Admirals ever do: she sees he’s unhinged and demands, despite his desperate pleas, that he resign his command, rightly assessing that Starfleet’s best weapon is in the hands of a madman.
Now, here’s where the plot misses a major opportunity (or did it?): with Sarek saved but injured, Cornwall goes to meet the dissenting Klingon houses, telling Lorca they’ll announce his resignation when she gets back.  In my heart-of-hearts I wanted Lorca to orchestrate her mission as a means of disposing of her: it would be a tremendously conniving, Machiavellian move on Lorca’s part and really cement him as a mastermind…unfortunately, the Klingon peace talks are a trap and while the result is the same, Cornwall captured and the resignation delayed, I wish Lorca had had more hand in it.
We do get a great beat between Saru and Lorca following this, where Saru is surprised that they aren’t going to break Starfleet regulations to mount a rescue mission (it would be a first in Lorca’s career not to break Starfleet rules), but instead Lorca opts to await Starfleet orders, with his phaser tucked ominously in his belt (who knows, he may still find a way to dispose of Cornwall during the rescue).
This is a story beat we’ll see play out in a future episode, but as it stands it’s a missed opportunity.  But, at least we know the show isn’t going to let-up on the villain captain concept (he only saved Sarek so Burnham would personally owe him and he’s made the suspicious Ash Tyler security chief).  Speaking of…

The Romantical Adventures of Michael Burnham

With Ash Tyler being integrated into the crew (along with Burnham receiving her bridge role), we finally have the entire announced cast on-board the ship, with Burnham and Tyler having a slightly-flirty-antagonistic relationship that echoes Leia and Han in Empire Strikes Back.  With Burnham and Tyler both being combat mission types, it’s nice to get a pair of buddy cops on the ship (as opposed to the mentor/mentee relationship she has with Tilly) and gives us a sense of what away teams will look like moving forward (plus giving Burnham a romance option).  However, Tyler is still a question mark: although Lorca looked up his history, the circumstances of his imprisonment still raise a lot of questions.  If he is indeed a double agent, this is a great set-up for having Burnham close to him and provides a fascinating lens by which to watch their scenes.
With tin-foil-hat firmly on head, I will continue to watch this relationship with great interest.

Vulcan Terrorists and Treacherous Klingons

So, this was interesting: Sarek’s mission is endangered by a Vulcan suicide bomber (who unironically flashes Sarek the ‘Live Long and Prosper’ as he detonates).  Traditionally, we’ve seen some infighting by Vulcans, but nothing on the scale of this: the centre of the issue being the integration of Vulcans into Starfleet, which is objected to by the Logic um…terrorists.  It’s an interesting enough angle, I suppose, that Vulcans would have this kind of behaviour in their society, but I can’t help but feel it falls a bit too thoroughly into the grimdark trope: we’ve established that war-is-hell, but does everyone, everywhere have to be as terrible as they can possibly be all the time?
Same goes for the infuriatingly predictable Klingon ‘peace talks’ betrayal, where two houses that are on the outs with Kol’s rising empire seek to talk to the Vulcans about joining the Federation…only to immediately betray everyone to earn Kol’s favour.  It unfortunately continues to cast the Klingons as the WORST and furthers the single minded drive of Lord of the Rings’ orcs: right now, they are single-mindedly evil, rather than a complex, full society as we saw in previous Treks.  We had a brief chance to see some depth and dissent here, but it’s immediately passed over to service the Cornwall plot and further cement that the Klingons are bad (#NotAllKlingons?).  I know the show is playing into the villainous Klingons from the Original Series, but it seems to forget that we really fucking like Worf and have spent a lot of time with enjoyable Klingons over the years…it’s odd that while the design has been completely changed almost universally across the show from the Original Series, the villainous, treacherous Klingon trope is held here as sacrosanct.  Hopefully we’ll see some more depth soon (and no, an albino religious fanatic does not count as depth).

DISCO Shirts

…I’m still not over it.  Maybe Q made them?

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

Star Trek Discovery, Ep 5: Choose Your Pain

In thinking about last week’s episode, I made the argument that the reason for the ‘grimdark’ tone of Discovery was to show our characters struggling to evolve from morally ambiguous, wartime characters into the hopeful utopians of The Original Series and happily this week’s episode, Choose Your Pain, re-affirms this by taking a key opportunity to separate the crew from Captain Lorca.  The result is Lorca making the wrong call (which has caused minor outcry from Trek fans) and the crew struggling, but ultimately making the right call. We also get the return of a fan favorite from The Original Series, con man Harry Mudd (played in Discover by Rainn Wilson) and the introduction of a PTSD-afflicted Federation prisoner-of-war who may be more than he seems.  The episode also finally puts more on Saru as he takes command of Discovery’s mission to rescue Lorca and decide the fate of Ripper, being increasingly damaged to navigate the teleportation drive.  Both plots are engaging and advance the overall story nicely, leading to a solid episode of Trek.

Plus, there was cussin’!  Trek dropped its first two f-bombs in this episode, which were…fine? Honestly, I was mostly just reminded of the South Park episode about how once everyone can say ‘shit’ on TV it stops being interesting.  Did love that it was about science, though.

And finally, we get our first proper introduction to the promised relationship between Stamets and Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) and it’s exactly what I hoped it would be: a relationship.  On a starship.  That no one particularly cares or makes a big deal about, including the show.  Their relationship is actually a tremendously big deal for the Trek-verse, bringing the first canonical gay couple into the TV timeline (Sulu’s orientation was shifted in the Kelvin timeline for Star Trek Beyond as an homage to actor and activist George Takei, but many – including Takei – objected to the change, preferring that new characters be introduced, rather than old ones altered).  But the show know what’s it’s doing with these two, having them just enjoy a moment of domesticity not unlike those of roommates Burnham and Tilly, rather than exoiticising the couple.  Just as Roddenberry did with Uhura, Sulu, and later Chekov as bridge officers in The Original Series, Discovery continues to present diversity as an accepted given of the future.

And there’s nothing grimdark about it.

Full spoilers follow.

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Much has been made of the return of Harry Mudd and as Rainn Wilson suggested during the press conferences leading into the show (he often served as panel moderator for the cast), in Choose Your Pain we get a slightly grittier Mudd (surprise! #grimdark) who is more fitting for the tone of a wartime period in Discovery.  Wilson argued, when asked for feedback on the early scripts, that while Mudd needed to be recognizable as the same character, that the whimsical tone of his cons in The Original Series would be out-of-place in war time.  The result, so far, is Mudd as a Klingon prisoner, a civilian trying to survive in a POW camp.  It’s an interesting set-up and allows Mudd be as clever and conniving as ever, but in more dire circumstance.  It also brings one of our few civilian points-of-view in the show (other than Burnham’s fellow prisoners in the third episode), as Mudd denounces the Federation as ignoring the needs of the ‘little people’ down planetside.  Mudd’s argument, though not entirely legitimate as his business was a scam, holds water: the war against the Klingons comes from the Federation spreading out into the universe and an alien race’s aversion to be assimilated by them.  Wilson gets to deliver an amazingly snarky version of the famous “to boldly go” line and echoes sentiments expressed recently by Idris Elba’s villain in Beyond: you push the frontier, sometimes the frontier pushes back.   Mudd presents a rather bleak view of space exploration (though knowing what we know about the Klingons eventually joining and thriving in the Federation, maybe less so) but while this may seem a pessimistic, post-modern (dare I say, grimdark?) take on the nature of Star Trek, it’s worth remembering that ideas like this are not new to the franchise: hell, the Prime Directive is violated almost every episodeDiscovery points directly at it, but the question of whether the good outweighs the bad of diversity, exploration, and making contact with other cultures has been constant in Trek; with Trek’s thesis always being that diversity is strength – that we can learn from each other and better each other.  Mudd doesn’t take this stance, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of taking him as a character with a valid moral centre: he is a career con man we first met when he tried to sell women to the Enterprise.  But this, I suspect, is the point of Lorca: his skewed morality is there as a litmus test against which to check other characters.  Kirk versus Mudd?  Kirk comes out as in the right.  Lorca versus Mudd? Mudd is right.

Which brings us to Lorca’s big decision, which has been taking a lot of heat online: after successfully orchestrating an escape, Lorca leaves Mudd – who has betrayed them by smuggling info to the Klingons and choosing other prisoners to take the beatings from the Klingons –to his fate.  I read an article over on io9 whose headline declared that this episode and specifically this action were when “Discovery finally lost its soul,” which though an eye-catching headline, is ultimately a misleading one: the article posits that Lorca leaving Mudd to be tortured and killed without hesitation or remorse is inexcusable for Starfleet and for a captain.  Agreed.  But I think that’s the point: Lorca is the bad guy.  He’s a fanatic, an Ahab, and mercy to one’s enemies doesn’t fit that model.  The thing that is upsetting most Trek fans right now, it seems, is not being able to reconcile hatred of a captain with a Trek show.  We’ve been conditioned to believe unfailingly in the heroics of our captains (though all have done some pretty morally ambiguous things, in their time), but we know from SO MANY GUEST STARS that Starfleet is rife with villains.  We’ve just never had to live with one before.

This is what makes removing Lorca from the ship for an episode so important: we need to see what the Discovery looks like without his influence and the results are telling.  Saru finally gets his command but is unsure of himself, as he later admits, he never had a mentor like Georgiou, so he begins by setting up a computer algorithm based on the greatest captains in Starfleet history (some nice Easter Eggs, there) to monitor his choices and cross-check them against other captains’ records.  It’s an adorably logical way to try and gauge one’s success and fits what we’ve seen of Saru perfectly.  Saru’s command is (of course) challenged by Burnham, who is really making an effort not to, on the issue of Ripper, who is suffering brain damage from the spore-drive.  Here, Saru makes the wrong call: he demands that until Lorca is saved, the question of whether or not Ripper is sentient or being damaged is moot.  By doing so, he consigns a sentient creature to slavery and death in the name of the cause, a very Lorca decision.  Through some quick medical discoveries, Stamets and Burnham realize that a human could also navigate and willingly give consent to the process, but Saru demands immediate results, causing the ship to teleport but putting Ripper into a protective coma.  After ordering the waking-up of Ripper at any cost, Saru manages to save Lorca and jump to safety; because Stamets defied him and acted as navigator himself, at great personal risk.  Here’s the important thing: Burnham, Stamets, and the doctor were given a war-time order that was morally wrong and they couldn’t live with themselves if they followed it: as a result, they defied that order and made the moral choice: the result was Saru recognizing his error, apologizing, and asking Burnham to save Ripper’s life.  In the course of this episode, we saw our crew evolve toward the Trek ideal (or standard, depending on your point-of-view) by not choosing Lorca’s way.  With Lorca back in command, this will be put to the test, particularly if new character Ash Tyler, the POW Lorca saves and brings back with him, turns out to be a double agent (as his convenient story and introduction seem to suggest).

This episode also lays some AMAZING ‘crazy Star Trek premise’ groundwork, with the teaser at the end of the episode.  While this could be a timeline that operates a little slower, my money is on the infamous Mirror Universe (home of the ‘evil Spock goatee’): with Discovery teleporting around a sub-dimension via the spores (possibly the most Trek sentence I’ve ever written), there is plenty of opportunity to break reality and in classic Trek fashion, that can lead to some great stories (and some pretty terrible ones…)  Of particular interest: the Mirror Universe features a warlike Federation dedicated to Empire and domination…what does Lorca look like in a universe of ‘evil twins’?  Is he good?  Because that would give a lot of insight to our cast as to the Captain’s true nature. We’ll see; fingers crossed for an evil Saru goatee.

There’s one more major thing to address from this episode, however it’s a bit of a meta-spoiler (in that information from the process of making the show suggests it rather than the episode itself).  I’m going to go into it below, but don’t want to spoil something for viewers that could otherwise be a well-plotted storyline, so if you’re enjoying the show and don’t want to have anything ruined, then thanks for the read and I’ll see ya next week.

However, if you don’t care about such things, read on…

Well Substantiated Spoiler Theory Follows After the Bump

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So, let’s talk about Ash Tyler…who is suspicious as hell and may well be Voq, our albino Klingon, in disguise.  We’ve seen Klingon infiltrators made to look human before (in The Trouble with Tribbles, no less) and Tyler’s track in the episode certainly reads as a traitor (in a classic, ‘meet a spy in jail’ kinda way).

But here’s the biggest proof: the actor playing Voq is Shazad Latif…who also plays Ash Tyler.  Since io9 brought this to my attention, the posting on IMDB has been taken down, but there was also word during the ‘troubled Dark Ages of Discovery development’ that Shazad Latif, originally cast as ‘Klingon Commander Kol’ was being recast as Lieutenant Ash Tyler.  There’s now conjecture that this was all smoke and mirrors to hide the twist, similar to the kind of stunts pulled to hide Khan’s identity in Into Darkness (worst kept secret in the universe) or the obscuring of Marion Coltiard’s Tahlia al Ghul in Dark Knight Rises…to the degree that the actor cast as ‘Kol’ may not even be real (!)  Extreme measures, but desperate, spoilery times call for desperate measures.

This all tracks with last week’s episode (which chronologically was a month or more ago), which saw Voq travel with L’Rell to House Mokai (house of lies and illusions!) and “give up everything.”

This plotline would definitely bring the Klingon guerilla war suggested by L’Rell and the Discovery main plot together quite nicely, keeping the main Klingons out while Voq attempts to steal the Federation’s best weapon.  As an added bonus, if our main Klingon is speaking English now, we don’t have to put up with as much halting Klingon…which would be GREAT for all involved.

So, a promising plot and a huge twist…as long as one can forget the news of Latif’s recasting, which at the time was highlighted as bizarre and troubling production news.  Turns out, it may have just been tactical news; time will tell.

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

Star Trek Discovery, Ep 4: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

Discovery Episode Four – “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”

We’re starting to see how the show runs, now that the set-up is done and I’m pleased to see that even though the series has taken on a serialized approach, the episode’s plot still stands on its own, simultaneously feeling both like a Star Trek episode (problem on a planet, need to come up with a solution to reach them in time, science our way through, arrive in time to save the people, consider the consequences and lessons learned) while also building on the overarching plot (Discovery’s role as a black ops ship, the continued story of the creature from the Glenn, the ongoing Klingon power struggle).  I’m pleased to see that the show can balance these elements as well as it does here as it gives us the final proof of concept for the new style of show, and for my money, it’s a good one.

This episode also succeeds in examining who Michael Burnham is when she isn’t dealing with her big ‘mutineer’ plot and thankfully she’s the same character we got a glimpse of in the pilot when she was exploring the Torch: a curious, inquisitive, mind that is in awe of space.  There are a lot of complaints and concerns about the tone of this new show as being overly militaristic, pessimistic, and ‘grimdark’ (a delightful portmanteau with its origins in the Warhammer 40,000 universe; learn more about it in this handy article at KnowYourMeme.com), however I’d argue that the Michael we’re getting now is actually the embodiment of the sense of discovery and exploration that was always at the core of Trek.  Her main support characters, Lt. Stamets and Cadet Tilly, both provide classic Trek outlets, with particular credit to Rapp, whose Stamets mixes the best smarm of Stephen Colbert and Phil Hartman to create a science officer foil that is both capable and annoying (in a good way).  While Burnham remains in strife with Saru, the show did a good enough job of getting us on-side with him that we’re content to wait and let him become more central as Burnham increases in rank (something we’ll likely see happen pretty quickly, given Lorca’s obsessions).  And speaking of Lorca, my continued hat is off to Trek for allowing what would previously be a mentor or admiral one-off villain be the actual captain of the goddamn ship.  We’ve seen the dark reflection of our captains many times before, but to get an actual Ahab is a joy – particularly given Burnham’s care and understanding of the creature in her care.

Which brings me to the big debate point right now: is this Trek too grimdark?  I’ve been wondering this myself, ever since the first major conflict with the Klingons involved Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Phillipa Georgiou hiding a bomb on a Klingon casualty of war in order to attack their ship.  Tactically, this is something we’ve seen in major conflicts throughout time, but is generally regarded (rightly so) as a despicable, inhumane act.  Obviously, in the dire circumstances of war despicable, inhumane acts are sometimes the only options available (as indeed it is presented here), however there is no pause or comment on it from theoretically moral and upstanding characters.  Georgiou is regarded as a Picard-level ‘always does the right thing’ character and yet defiles a corpse without thought or hesitation; all we would have needed, I think, was a moment of “We must do a despicable thing to win this” or a “Captain, are you sure that’s a line you want to cross” and see Georgiou decide to do it, cost be damned, to save her crew and we would have been good.  Unfortunately, it was presented as an imminently reasonable solution to the problem (as Trek technical solutions often are) and we moved on.  Trek, traditionally, is a show of optimism about the future, with Roddenberry’s stated goal being to present us not as we are but how we should strive to be: simple things like having a Russian working happily alongside Americans on the bridge of the Enterprise during the Cold War was a simple statement about what we could do if we stopped fighting each other and started working together.  Roddenberry refused to allow war into Trek (aside from the Klingon Cold War, in full swing during The Original Series) and it wasn’t until after his death that we got our first taste of out-and-out war in Deep Space Nine, which took Trek to war against The Dominion.  War was further re-visited in Enterprise (which shares a lot of DNA and ideas with Discovery, though Discovery has gone about applying it much better) and then again most recently in the very post-9/11 take on the Federation in J.J. Abram’s Star Trek Into Darkness (which thankfully was course-corrected in Beyond).

But here we have Trek at war, aboard a ‘victory at all costs’ black ops shop, determined to end the war as quickly as possible.  The Discovery and its secret projects are a kind of Manhattan Project, with Lorca eagerly eying the war-ending potential of the atom bomb with not a thought to the destruction and death it will cause: this sits ill with many Trek fans, which is understandable, given Roddenberry’s intent and the hopeful nature of the other shows.  What I’d like to argue here is this: the goal of this series is to bring moral ambiguous characters forward to the point of being the hopeful adventurers we met in The Original Series, not to languish in that utopian-lite period of optimism.  The way the cast and crew spoke about the show at the press conference at the San Diego Comic Con back in July leaned heavily toward hope, tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and understanding how to live with and strive with each other.  So far, we’ve only seen glimpses of that, but I’d like to hope that’s the point: we are living in a post-Star Trek society.  We’ve seen it, we’ve loved it, we’ve learned from it.  Roddenberry built a beautiful lens through which to view our future and we’ve been looking through it for fifty years; but the world around us does not reflect that future (and granted, in his time his world didn’t reflect it either).  What I’d posit Discovery is presenting is an experience where we move from not understanding how to achieve this future, to actively working to achieve it, as our characters do.  And the show is presenting a much more accepting and diverse picture of humanity in the future: even just having a greater diversity of sexualities aboard a starship is a big step forward for Trek.  But where we are failing hard right now as a society is in understanding other points of views and seeking similarities: we’re re-tribalizing and becoming isolationist again as the world continues to shrink due to the internet and ease of communication and travel.  And so, I think, Discovery is out to show us that part of the process: how we come to use our empathy, curiosity, and understanding to work together.  In a sense, it’s showing its work, rather than just presenting the result.  The first real proof of this, comes in this week’s episode with ‘Ripper’ the creature that killed everything on the Glenn during last week’s excellent horror sequence.

Ripper has shown itself to be a creature of great destructive capabilities as well being nearly invulnerable.  Naturally, Lorca wants to weaponize it or repurpose its claws and hide for weapons and armour.  Tasked with doing so, Burnham is teamed up with security chief Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma, best known as Tory from Battlestar Galactica): where Burnham seeks to understand the creature and why it attacks, Landry just sees it as a weapon and gets killed right-quick for it.  But Burnham’s process of understanding is a clever and ultimately useful one: rather than just treat the unknown as a threat, Burnham works to understand.  This is a classic Trek set-up and has been used time-and-time again (like that time Spock mind-melded with the angry carpet monster in The Devil in the Dark) but here I think it’s actually being used to illustrate Discovery’s thesis: the creature was introduced as a ‘freak-of-the-week’ monster in the first episode, the key to fungal teleportation and sentient in the second and is left wounded and afraid by the teleportation by episode’s end, with Burnham struggling with the fact that it isn’t a beast, it’s a new alien lifeform that is being abused and disregarded for Starfleet’s immediate gain.  It’s a different way to think about first contact and the idea of ‘seeking out new life and new civilizations’ but it’s a good one for a time of fear and war: just because we’re in conflict doesn’t mean we can abandon our beliefs and morals (as the first episode oddly did with the corpse bombs).  Burnham seems to be learning this and my great hope is that the rest of the series will follow her spreading that to the rest of the crew, while contending with Lorca’s hellbent mission.

Of course, I could be wrong; TV has shifted hard in favour of the anti-hero over the years, with show runners struggling to make audiences hate their villainous main characters (Vince Gilligan was astounded people were still rooting for Walter White to win and get a happy ending going into the final season of Breaking Bad).  We’ve seen what is morally acceptable for our main character to do in the name of the cause shift dramatically (thanks, Jack Bauer) and with the state of the United States right now, it’s damn hard to view the future with optimism and if I’m wrong and this truly is a grimdark Trek, it may not be the one we want, but the one we deserve right now.

At Comic Con, during SyFy’s excellent “The Great Debate” panel, moderator John Hodgman posed the question: if you had to erase either Star Wars or Star Trek from history, which would it be?  The entire panel voted Wars, not out of hatred of the franchise, but because of the hopeful nature of Trek.  Mythbusters’ Adam Savage disagreed: with palpable sadness in his voice, he replied that though he loves Trek with all his heart, the future it promised is too easy and a lie.  He said for our current world, we needed the grit and tragedy of Wars, where common people struggle against tyrants.  The mood in the room shifted for a brief moment as we all sat with the ramifications of what he’d said.  Then someone made a joke and we were back to it.  But Discovery reflects Savage’s point: it is giving us a dirtier, more morally ambiguous Trek to fit the times, but if it can bring us from despair to hope, it will have created one of the most interesting arcs ever in the history of Trek.

It’s still too early to tell and likely will be until the series ends, but either way, I’m with them now to the end: and regardless of whether or not Discovery can pull off the gargantuan task I’ve hypothesized for it, the show is engaging, interesting science fiction.

In that regard, it doesn’t really matter whether Discovery is good or bad Trek: it’s good TV. Ultimately, that’s probably what matters most.

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

Star Trek Discovery, ep 3: Context is for Kings

Star Trek: Discovery Review – “Ep .3: Context is for Kings”

Now that’s more like it.

After a slow start and a remarkably incomplete two-part premiere, we now have an actual sense of the kind of show Star Trek: Discovery wants to be.  And while it’s a departure from Treks of yore (as advertised), what Discovery has finally set up is extremely promising.

Picking up six months after the previous episode, Michael Burnham is now working on a prison mining crew and has become infamous as Starfleet’s first mutineer (an interesting distinction that somewhat justifies how much time was spent setting her up in the previous episodes).  Before long, she finds herself aboard the shiny new USS Discovery, a scientific research vessel that is full of armed guards, off-limit labs, and mysterious ‘black badge’ Starfleet Officers.  It’s clear something is amiss and is one of the greatest gifts Discovery has given us: a ship that we haven’t been following with a less than trustworthy crew.  Voyager opened with this premise, having the rebel group the Maquis join with Voyager to get home, but the crew dynamic quickly reverted to the usual Trek fare (I know the threat of a mutiny by Chakotay dropped away pretty quickly for me).

The difference here is seeing Voyager through a character like Chakotay’s eyes – who are these people and what are they up to?  The situation is further complicated in Burnham’s case since, as a prisoner stranded on Discovery, she is subject to the Captain’s orders and soon finds herself actively working alongside some of her former crewmates and innumerable people who view her as a traitor to the Federation and the cause of the Klingon War.

Burnham’s ability and curiosity quickly position her as an asset and she begins to suspect that Discovery is not what it appears, all leading – of course – to the Captain offering her a position aboard the ship.  While Burnham’s appointment to the ship was inevitable, the circumstances of it (compounded by her suspicion that her shuttle’s ‘accident’ was orchestrated to bring her aboard, which seems to be accurate) are inventive and engaging.

We also get a tremendously atmospheric away mission very reminiscent of Alien, Event Horizon, or EA’s excellent Dead Space video game series as the crew explores the Discovery’s sister ship the USS Glenn and the horrors within.  Trek has done horror a few times, but few as successfully as this, where Discovery’s excellent design sense and top notch directing really shines.  The series really does look and feel like a movie, which is pretty incredible.

But best of all, we get another awesome first for the series: a villainous, untrustworthy Captain.  Jason Isaac’s Captain Gabriel Lorca comes off as another stock “Looking to do the right thing in the wonders of space” captain at first (honestly, his first scene could have just been Scott Bakula’s Captain Archer from Enterprise), but we quickly realize there’s a lot more to Lorca than meets the eye…and it positions Burnham for an incredible arc: if you’re notorious for munity against your good captain, how can you properly hope to stop your bad captain?  Lorca embodies the best of the guest starring ‘Crazed Starfleet Officer who will achieve his goals, cost be damned’, but rather than an admiral or former mentor as was so often the case in past Treks, in this one he’s the main captain and that is exciting as hell.  Suddenly casting Lucius Malfoy makes infinite sense.  It’s a great set-up and I’m psyched to see where it goes.

We also meet the rest of the crew, none of whom are particularly happy to meet Burnham, most notably: her twitchy roommate and eventual first ally Sylvia Tilly (a Cadet, rank we’ve rarely seen aside from Chekov in The Original Series, given our bridge focus); Anthony Rapp (Mark from RENT!) as the arrogant biologist Paul Stamets (who is responsible for the mysterious fungi-based teleportation system that is Discovery’s best-kept secret…and a technology unheard of in further Treks, making it all the more intriguing). By episode’s end, Burnham has been ‘requisitioned’ by Lorca for the war effort, but one gets the sense that officially, she’s dead (there’s a beat with Saru, now serving under Lorca, where it seems his ‘death sense’ tingles as the mining shuttle leaves with the other convicts…I suspect we’ll hear it never arrived within a few episodes).  She’s started unravelling Discovery’s mysteries, but based on the ending there’s clearly a lot more Lorca is hiding.

Honestly, setting up mysteries about the ship and its crew’s intentions is one of the best arguments for serialization in a Trek show I’ve seen.  Discovery has delivered on its promise: we are already seeing a much different perspective than we’re used to.  As I suspected last week, this episode was what was needed to make the argument for the show and it has succeeded.  Next week should also be an interesting test, to see how the show settles into the rhythm of just running, but from the looks of things, Discovery is a mystery worth solving.

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

Star Trek Discovery Ep 1&2: The Vulcan Hello and The Battle at the Binary Stars

Star Trek Discovery: A Slow Beginning to a Promising Series

Damn it’s exciting to have Star Trek back on TV.  With last night’s premiere, Star Trek Discovery has finally stepped into the public eye, after years of secrecy, delays, staff changes, and troubling production reports; we finally have something we can actually watch and analyse rather than speculate about…

Well, almost.

There is a lot of potential in what Discovery is setting up, but unfortunately the pilot fails to actually set-up the series: bafflingly enough, it reads as a prequel or cold open to the series, but fails to tell us where it’s going or what we should be excited for.  While many reviewers received the first three episodes, only the first two were aired last night and the result is confounding.  The premiere feels like the cold open of J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek film…but stretched out over two hours.  What we do get is an introduction to at least one new classic Trek character in Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru and a potentially interesting lead in Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham, though the jury is still out on that one as so far the series has dwelled far too much on her past and not nearly enough on her present (and the alarming similarities to Spock, including be raised by his father Sarek already make her feel like a bit too familiar).  We encounter an unfamiliar looking Klingon Empire in disarray (not loving the new design so far…they look a bit like melted orcs) and get a sense of what the antagonists’ goals will be, a couple of twists that would have been incredible had they not been telegraphed by every possible means leading up to the show’s release, and a cliff-hanger that isn’t really all that interesting since we know the lead character ends up on Discovery…a ship and crew that don’t even show up in the first two episodes.

While a fully serialized format is new for Trek, this is an astounding oversight for a pilot as we end the two hours not really knowing where we’re going.  We’ve had a neat TV movie that introduces our lead and sets up a war, but not a whole lot else; this might be fine in the first hour, but so much time is burned on flashbacks that ultimately provide a bit of back-story but nothing essential to our understanding of the action, that if the series ended you actually would have a complete, stand-alone film.   The style of the show will invariably draw comparisons to Deep Space Nine writer/producer Ron Moore’s excellent Battlestar Galactica and I can’t help but compare this ‘TV movie launch event’ to their’s: where Galactica introduced us to the universe, all the major players, all the initial plots, and managed to get the entire series into motion in two hours, Discovery has yet to introduce most of the cast or the title vessel.  In Galactica terms, this is ending the movie before the Cylons attack and blow up the colonies not mentioning a Battlestar.  Imagine a pilot to LOST where they don’t board the plane, let alone crash by the end of the episode, or a pilot to FRIENDS that just deals with Rachel leaving her wedding but ends before she enters the coffee shop; you’re asking for a lot of faith from your audience that they’ll tune back in.  If it were any other series, I’d probably stop watching around this point: it feels built to binge, but is being released one week at a time (on a streaming service, strangely enough).  All I needed is what, from the sounds of things, the third episode brings (an introduction to the main cast and ship), but by denying me that piece of story and set-up I’m instead left feeling dissatisfied and mystified.  Not a great way to leave your audience (and a dedicated fan, no less) at the end of your pilot episodes.

Visually, the show is gorgeous, definitely taking everything from its design aesthetic to its camera angles (and, regrettably, lens flares) from the J.J. Abrams-verse (the Kelvin Timeline, for my fellow nerds).  While the designs definitely clash with what we traditionally think of as TV Trek, they necessarily take into account modern technology while also acknowledging Enterprise, the black sheep of the Trek family, in its costuming, and will make film fans feel right at home (while us old timey Trekkers and Trekkies grumble about the new Klingons…I’m still not over how distracting the change is).  We’ve already seen a tonne of interesting new ship designs and have seen how the show will handle space combat (in a much more fluid way than the technologically-necessary static battles of the past).  The alien designs have been fascinating and suggest we’ll be seeing a bunch of interesting new ideas coming out of the show (another thing the Abrams movies did well).

Canonically, the biggest hurdle the show has to get over is the Klingon re-design (yet-to-be-explained, but theoretically that there are different Houses in the Klingon Empire and each is visually distinct.  Which I guess also ties into the Enterprise disease that took great lengths to explain the variance in Klingon head ridges over the years).  Otherwise, we’re exploring an era of Trek history that is mostly untouched, so the show actually has a lot of freedom; taking place between Enterprise and The Original Series, we can safely meet all sorts of characters without breaking the universe too badly and the show makes sure to use the technology we’ve seen – classic phasers, communicators, etc  – alongside new stuff to make sure it fits (again, similar to the new films).

Ultimately, the pilot is failed by leaning too heavily into serialization and embracing a binge model in design but not in practice (if it was all on Netflix right now, I doubt we’d be having this conversation as I would’ve watched at least three in a sitting).  Visually, it’s incredibly beautiful and shows what a powerhouse a modern Trek show can be.  The performances are a bit uneven, from the already iconic (Jones), to the mixed (Martin-Green balancing a sense of awe and earnest excitement about the galaxy, which is engaging and awesome, with the tired ‘Vulcan baggage’ routine that we’ve seen one too many times now), to the flat out bad (the Klingon leader is not only one-note but also has incredible difficulty speaking Klingon – I think his vocal chords were damaged or somesuch? – and the result is that it’s incredibly painful to listen to him talk and feels like it adds an hour to the show’s runtime.  This was happily remedied by the end of the second episode, but it was pretty rough until then).  The support cast is all very solid and it’s a joy to see so many local faces on the bridge – still hard to conceive of Star Trek, once squarely stowed away on the Paramount lot in Los Angles being shot locally here in Toronto.  It’s super, super cool.  The show respects what has come before but is also taking liberties where necessary (jury is still out on the Klingon choice) and already feels more at home than Enterprise did when it launched (originally as long-time Trek producers’ trying to make an accessible show that angered fans and bored new audiences in equal measure before a massive late-series course correction saved the series from being an all-out disaster).

And so, I’m left being uncertain of where we’re boldly going, but, to quote the most disastrous Trek theme of all time, I’ve got faith of the heart*: if the interplay between Saru and Burnham is an indication of how the main cast will play, we’re going to have a fun, interesting bridge crew…I just wish I’d met them by now.  Serialization is no excuse for glacial pacing (looking at you, later seasons of House of Cards) but particularly when you’re spreading that serialization out week-to-week, you need make sure we’re all-aboard.

We’ll have a better idea this coming Sunday.  Until then, I’m left in the same state as Burnham: uncertain, stationary, and slightly defeated.  Here’s hoping the show delivers on the promise it has hinted at and delivers the Trek we hope it can be.

Nevertheless, I can’t overstate how cool it is to be waiting for next week’s episode of Star Trek again: for all its problems and all its successes, there was a very real risk, for a very long time, that Trek would never return to TV, where it can fully explore the kinds of stories, ideas, and characters that made it so iconic.  At the very least, Star Trek has completed its voyage home and a welcome return it is.

Here’s hoping Star Trek will continue to live long and prosper.

 

 

*My apologies if that stupid song is stuck in your head now. But it is canon, after all…Good news is, Discovery’s theme is much, much better – like a Trekified version of the Westworld theme.

This post originally appeared on MyEntertainmentWorld.ca

Ep 8: Rush Hour 2

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EPISODE EIGHT: Rush Hour 2

Tom and Miles are joined by special guest comedian, sketch performer, and writer Kat Letwin to discuss the further adventures of Jackie Chan and human air horn Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2. Tom and Kat were surprised to discover their mutual childhood love of the series but were equally surprised at how much sexism there is and consequently how poorly the film has aged. Miles had never seen it and kinda wishes it had stayed that way. Join us for a crash course in the career and style of Jackie Chan and an impromptu Disney song on this super-sized episode!

Ep 7: The Purge Election Year

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EPISODE SEVEN: The Purge Election Year

In a horrible dystopia where America has succumbed to its worst impulses, a group of heroes resists and tries to restore sanity to a nation.  But enough about current events…

Miles and Tom return for Please Sir, I Want Some More Season 2 with their first threequel: The Purge – Election Year! Join Tom and Miles as they navigate the potential and failure of a great premise as Frank Grillo tries to keep Juliet-from-LOST alive long enough for her to become president and end The Purge once and for all.

An Interesting Case Study On The ‘Why’ Of Puppets in Production

Seven Siblings’ Titus Andronicus

Puppets?  In a Shakespeare play?  Madness.

Titus is actually the most requested Shakey-Shake play (usually by people at bars, but often by 30-somethings after seeing a show at Fringe), so naturally I was curious when Seven Siblings announced their Titus featuring puppets.  My Entertainment World pretty accurately reflects my feelings about the show on the whole, but here I want to focus on the main reason to see this production, if you’re at all thinking about using puppets in a production: there is a lot at work with the application and execution (literal and figurative) and it makes an interesting case study for how puppets are applied in theatre.

So, why see this play?  The individual elements can be quite good: the Saturninus puppet, in particular, is very engaging – three puppeteers operate it in a vaguely bunraku way, using their individual voices and speaking chorally to create a great, otherworldly effect.  There are even some physical surprises built in that only come about in the final fight and shows that even on an indie budget incredible puppets are possible.  All the puppets look fantastic and the puppeteers generally do very well with them (particularly the criminally underused Sarah Thorpe and Jeff Dingle).  Puppets are capable of great and exciting things, particularly on this scale: it’s hard not to feel intimidated when you see a seven-foot-tall puppet backed by three puppeteers looming over an actor or fold out General Grievous-style with two swords to take up most of the stage.  The epic scale, despite the depth of the stage at The Citadel – creates instant status and interest and on a scale I rarely see on indie stages.  Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for examples of new ways to integrate puppets on stage.

However, despite the engaging nature of the puppets, their application to this particular script and production doesn’t entirely work.

In this Titus, the puppets are gods that helped the Romans to conquer the Gauls and inhabit the bunker that the play is set in.  The gods are sustained through blood-feeding tubes by corpses, creating an ‘in-continuity’ reason for puppeteers to be present on stage.  This is a novel approach and solution to the problem of puppeteers that speaks to the cinematic qualities of the production; while we acknowledge that puppeteers must be present in a stage production, in film would seem out of place and thus every effort is taken to obscure them.  It would seem to me that the choice to incorporate the puppeteers in this way speaks to a more of a film understanding and less of a stage understanding, but it’s interesting food for thought.  However, it does raise more questions than it answers – if the gods require human host bodies, what did they do before the Romans moved in?  How did they speak to the Romans and explain that they need blood feeding tubes?  It’s a problem which cannot be answered or addressed without adding text.  This, ultimately, is the largest problem with the amount of concept being layered onto the play: without adding any lines, the audience is left to infer on their own and go off of directors’ notes.  While I fully believe audiences are generally a lot smarter than they’re given credit for and can be asked to fill in the blanks, this asks a lot of an audience already following an Elizabethan play.  It also begs the question: what does it add to the story?  Visually, it’s a treat and stylistically very interesting.  Saturninus in particular is very engaging and enjoyable to watch, but the puppetness doesn’t increase my understanding of the character.  This is particularly true when other puppets are introduced: I can understand the royalty being puppets, but why the nurse?  Did someone really look at the bumbling messenger mole with his pigeons and say ‘Yes, hook a body up to that guy!’  Obviously I have no issue with puppets and Shakespeare, but the puppet logic here is muddy.

So, my recommendation is this: if you’re interested in puppet technique or application, pay attention to the technical work on display – how the puppets move, how they affect scenes, how they alter status through physicality.  Observe how the blood tubes both add and detract from the piece (great for the death of the wolf/nurse puppet, awkward for the death of Saturninus).  If you’re thinking of using puppets, consider very honestly the why: is it because they’re cool?  Does the script suggest them?  Do they help tell the story?  In this productions’ case, they certainly add visual interest, but they also complicate the play world.  While their method of speaking is engaging, the puppets themselves can’t emote the same way as humans; how does that affect your understanding of Shakespeare’s admittedly archaic text?  Do they make it clearer through movement or harder to understand due to their inability to emote?  Also, observe which characters are puppets and why – how does this choice affect how we view these characters and their place in the world?  Because of the wide variety and application of puppets, Titus is a fascinating case study for how the integration of puppets works and for how it doesn’t.  Definitely worth a view if these are questions you’re wrestling with in your own production.