Friday, 19 February 2021

Voyager: Death Wish @ 25

Q had been a raging success on The Next Generation, appearing in eight stories and six of its seven seasons.

Not bad for something intended to pad out the pilot of TNG.

The same couldn't be said of his lone appearance on DS9 accompanied by Vash where the one endearing memory is THAT punch and the response.

DS9 didn't lend itself to Q's mischief and nor did the tone of the show as it headed out into much darker, dysfunctional territory. Voyager on the other hand lent itself perfectly to Q. The counter of the female captain to the arrogant omnipotent being plus the chance to include a potential recurring character on the journey must have been tempting.

Yet of all the Q episodes across the franchise, Death Wish (which is 25 years old this month) is the one with the most serious message and tone through all of his appearances to date. Opening with the release of Q2 and the chase through the universe, Death Wish opens with the suggestion of some of the usual Q shenanigans. However nothing could be further from the truth.

One of Star Trek's most serious challenges to real world conundrums, Death Wish examines the very nature of life, immortality and death within 46 minutes. Q2's quality of life within his eternal confinement is, as we see, cramped and inhumane even for a Q. Can he accept that? A mortal life or ultimately suicide?

Utilising a courtroom story which flips the Humanity on Trial of Encounter at Farpoint to Q on Trial, the episode might be remembered more clearly for the appearance of Isaac Newton, Maury Ginsberg (playing Maury Ginsberg) and Jonathan Frakes returning to the role of a pre-Generations Will Riker. Riker's appearance certainly has implications to the future of the franchise and not so Frakes could notch another series up on his list but for the mention of "Ol' Ironboots", Thaddeus Riker - a name that he would later use for his son.

The relationship Q has with Janeway is also a significant move from the way in which he dealt with Picard. There was a matching of intellects at times and a level of respect that isn't present in Death Wish. Q sees Janeway as more of a new amusement and is to a degree infatuated with her, only gaining that respect once a verdict is reached in the hearing and Q has come to terms with his own change of style.

The sparring between Q and Janeway does get a little more spicy over the course of the three Voyager episodes in which he appears but the choice to continue the civil war and then child stories in The Q and the Grey and Q2 cause more harm than good when it comes to the franchise. Fortunately the lighter-hearted Lower Decks would provide Q with some of his dignity and character traits once again.

Death Wish is the most serious and hard-hitting of all Q's appearances in the Star Trek franchise and De Lancie is perhaps at his best when not being quite the precocious brat he was in earlier TNG episodes. There's a more mature head at points here, darkened only by the realisation that Q has himself become euthanised by the Continuum to the point where he is now tasked with controlling someone who has stepped out of the state's prescribed behaviours. Q2's uniqueness and outspoken individualistic views are a "danger to the Continuum" - a place in which everything has been done and said, even being the scarecrow.

In comparison to the Continuum of The Q and the Grey, the gas station metaphor seems fairly sane and perfectly sets the tone for the nature of the Q. Even in the way the visitors are ignored seethes with distain and arrogance that has marked the omnipotent beings since their first appearance in Star Trek. The Q have become lazy, bored and so isolated in millennia that to have one of their own think is, well, unthinkable since there's nothing more to do... except die.

For Q ultimately to be the one to assist Q2 (Quinn's) suicide is not even a remote possibility given the adversarial nature of their interactions through most of the episode but by the conclusion it definitely isn't. That one moment at the gas station where Q2 reveals how Q was his inspiration for breaking the rules and living immortality on the edge finally chinks at the armour of De Lancie's character. The real Q is in there but he needed to be reminded. 

Death Wish was something of an anomaly for Voyager. An episode with a strong moral message on a series that would become more and more high concept as it stepped into its third and fourth seasons before embracing the Borg and the darker aspects of the Delta Quadrant. Q's return was on a higher level to the misstep that was Q Less although as with Vash, Riker provided a little reminder and link back to Q's time on the Enterprise. The tonal shift suits the characters and De Lancie in particular is at the top of his Q game. By the end the shift in his opinions is distinct and believable with real hope that the omnipotent being has turned a corner. However both The Q and the Grey and Q2 would redress the balance and not in a beneficial manner...

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Lockdown Interviews: Phil Farrand

Sixty five minutes into a thirty minute interview and I’ve definitely used up more of Phil Farrand’s time than I should have.

I’m now eating into his writing time. At the moment Phil is writing book 14 of a 24 book series and chatting to me is cutting into valuable time. I need to call this; now.

“Moffat was a great writer for Doctor Who - Girl in the Fireplace is one of THE greats!”

I’ve fanned the flames around some great sci-fi TV which leads into us episode dropping some more from the glory years of rebooted Who. My mistake... 70 minutes.

But why am I speaking to an IT project manager from the US on a Friday night? 

The answer is, of course, Star Trek related because Phil Farrand is a bit of a literary legend - he penned the four Nitpickers Guides for Trekkers covering TOS, TNG (x2) and the first four seasons of DS9. But why did he stop? Why was the only further publication a Guide to The X-Files? 

"I actually grew up in the Philippines about 8 miles north of Manilla," recalled Phil as we started off checking all my recording equipment was actually doing its job. "To call my friend I had to walk over to the Bible School because we didn't have a phone in our house. Then I had to dial 9 because the phone system we were on was different to the phone system he was on and about six times out of ten you would get a busy tone so you'd keep hanging up and trying again then you would dial his number and half the time it wouldn't go through so you'd have to start that whole process again... It's amazing to think that now we can just video call halfway across the world instantly!"

"I loved The Original Series, I was a fan of Next Gen but with DS9 I felt they were fundamentally trying to take the franchise in a new way to boldly go where no man has gone before... but we're just going to stay on the station. So it was like, ok, it's in the universe, that's fine but what really killed it for me was when Voyager started up and Paramount wanted to start their own cable network and so it shifted off my local station and at the time we wren't getting cable because I felt it was overpriced and I just lost touch with the series."

"The thing that gave me a lot of love for the original series was that my mom did not watch TV except Star Trek. She was a very religious woman, really did some amazing things n terms of knowing things and intuiting things. She just didn't see the point of television but Star Trek she would watch with us.

Every week Phil's mom would watch the show with the family and afterwards explain the spiritual applications of the episode. "She would go through it and say 'See when Spock had that thing on his back and making him do things that's how we have to stand up against temptation and discipline ourselves'.

"The original stories were rich enough and enough fodder than you could indulge in those types of discussions. It wasn't just about who was going to die today. We seem to have shifted away from these big philosophical issues in science fiction and trying to do justice to both sides. We've shifted into the same dogma and hammering people over the head with it."

Phil applies this also to the latest Jodie Whittaker led series of Doctor Who which he also feels has been let down by the storylines. "There's not the richness we got in something like Blink with the Weeping Angels and The Pandorica Opens - probably one of the finest pieces of writing in science fiction television I have ever seen. Everybody had a moment and it was gorgeous."

In recent times the former Nitpicker has tried to dip back into Star Trek with its appearance on Netflix but even a few minutes in he's finding it fairly predictable although Picard did pique his interest.

"But those books were a lot of fun to write," recalled Phil in reference to the four Star Trek reference works he penned in the 1990's and are still read by observant Trek fans to this day.

After Star Trek went off the air in 1969, Phil watched the reruns, then The Motionless Picture(!), "Then the second movie comes out and it was good, third comes out; it's ok, fourth movie's fun so we're rolling with that and then they announced Next Gen.

"I thought they did some neat stuff. But it didn't have the nostalgia of The Original Series because that's what I'd grown up with but it was very fun. I would get together with my friends and we would talk about Star Trek and that was happening in the background. At the same time I was producing a music notation system that did fairly well and that made me want to go off and write the great American novel. However, it's not quite that easy and it can be dangerous becoming that financially independent so young."

Phil wanted to do something away from music and started looking around, writing and didn't know how to publish. But publishers are only confident with things and authors they know will sell. Taking a more entrepreneurial approach, Phil realised that he needed a product that everyone knew, that was doing well and people wanted to read about.

"I was talking with my friends and we stumbled on, during one of the episodes, about how the communicators worked. That was the trigger. Sometimes they tap them, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they tap them to end the call. That kind of just snowballed. 

"What every Star Trek fan does once they get into the mythos far enough... they start nitpicking and so then that started up.. It was such fun and we would meet up every week and I thought there have to be other Star Trek geeks who do this?"

Phil went home and said that he was going to watch every episode of TNG's first four seasons and write down everything they did wrong.

"So I started doing it," continued Phil, "Then I had to find someone to help publish it and that was Steve Eplinger who was a book producer at that time. He was essential but the problem with Steve was that he didn't watch TV and know the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek and he kept calling it the other thing!"

Confident of a winning product, Phil continued to badger Steve until one day Eplinger called him; "He was with his son, and he called to say he was in a shop and did I realise they did Star Trek toys?! I said yes and then he realised we could sell the book."

Steve then hunted and hunted for a publisher which eventually led to a friend of a friend who knew an editor at Bantham Trade Paperbacks. At the time they were a novel company.

"Jean Cavelos was there and Gene was a Trekkie. She pulled the proposal out of the envelope, read a couple of the chapters, picked up the phone and told Steve Eplinger 'I want to do this book'."

Within the books not only is there a synopsis of each episode but a couple of trivia questions to test your grey cells and sprinkled throughout are some top tens to add even more flavour.

"Sometimes they tap them, sometimes they don't. That snowballed into what every fan does and when you get far enough into the mythos and you start nitpicking. We met up each week to discuss in detail and I started to think that there must be other people who were doing the same thing."

Off the back of the first book, which sold something in the region of 250,000 copies, three further volumes of Star Trek and one on The X-Files followed. However confidence in unlicenced products took a slight turn.

"We were right on the front edge of a change in fandom and publishing," explained Phil, "What had happened was that everything was a protected property until William Shatner wrote Star Trek Memories. It sold gang-busters because it was William Shatner but it was not an official property and not done through the official publisher. Everybody said that was because he was famous so then right on the heels of that came this quirky guy writing The Nitpicker's Guides. While they're not producing Star Trek Memories numbers they are a solid seller.

"Then they started moving into this media tie-in market. We were very very careful and had a good lawyer and they said what to do, no photos, you have to put a significant amount of new content in - that was part of the reason for the tote boards and top tens."

This helped drive the format as Phil and his publisher ensured they were towing the correct line and in 1998 he was already working on a Star Wars guide ahead of the imminent release of The Phantom Menace.

"By that time publishers had been pushing the line of media tie ins that were based on fair use and they just pushed it so far that Paramount decided to go on the warpath. While I was writing up the Star Wars guide there's a book on the Godzilla movies and not by those that were authorised which had detailed synopses, pictures, no original content and of course they got sued and the studio won.

"Then there's a guy who wrote a little book called The Joy of Trek and it was about how to improve your relationship with a Trekker. Just a 100 page book and they sued him for about $22 million. They won. I spoke to the guy afterwards and he said that the Paramount lawyers stood up in court and used The Nitpicker's Guide to show an example of what's legal."

The two big hits on the media tie ins combined with the departure of the publisher's lawyer and Jean Cavelos shut down any further intentions from Bantham.

Which in turn meant that plans for Star Wars, a possible Buffy book and then loop back to complete DS9 were shelved. Permanently. Steve Eplinger tried for six months to see if another publisher would take the books but after the impact of the court cases it proved fruitless.

But that's not been the end to Phil Farrand's journey into writing. No sir. In fact he continues to write to this day but now focuses on his own projects. 

Alongside jobs in computer consulting, a few unexpected turns and a position as the music minister at his local church for 18 months, Phil got back into writing after some time away and is now working on a mammoth project which will take him (easily!!!) to retirement.

"I wanted something to keep me in writing and keep me pushed and then have a goal to complete it by retirement. The plan was to release 24 books in 12 years. Each is about 160,000 words and they are set at the end of a period of time called the Millennial Reign of Jesus Christ."

A race of Titans arrives on Earth, takes over all the governments and establish a utopia. All energy is free, you can grow and eat all the food in your garden. Banks are eliminated, all needs are taken care of and there's no need to work.

"There's two rules. Submit or die and treat others as you wish to be treated. That's it! Some people can live with it and some can't. Some claim that these are Jesus and his followers returned as prophesied and others say they're just aliens.who have used the mythology to get people to submit to them.

"There are those who have gone with it and then there are those that have drifted away," continued Phil, "and some have gone far out into space and established their own colonies. But at 960 years everybody wakes up and the Titans have gone. No-one knows if and when they'll come back. Some of their technology works, other bits don't. You have these people who haven't had to fend for themselves for 960 years and believe in a high moral code but out in the night there are those looking at the resources of Earth and it's ramping up towards the big battle."

Now completing book 14 (which I was by this point in the conversation interrupting the progress of!) there's still a lot more to come. However if literature's not your thing then it's definitely worth dropping on Phil Farrand's Facebook with his now weekly celebrations of National Days.

Certainly a highlight of the week, it'd be wrong to spoil the surprise but the effort that goes into each production is incredible and especially during current times it's sure to raise a smile. That's all I'll say!

Many thanks to Phil Farrand for joining Some Kind of Star Trek for this interview!

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Sunday, 14 February 2021

The Depth of DS9: HeroCollector's Illustrated Handbook

Over Christmas I finally submitted to HeroCollector's will and got hold of the three Illustrated Handbooks.

Covering the Constitution Class USS Enterprise NCC-1701 and NCC-1701-A, the second on Picard's Galaxy Class vessel and a third on Voyager, these are masterful guides to the hero craft of the franchise. With one notable exception.

Which has now been solved with the publication of the Deep Space Nine Illustrated Handbook. Excited? Yes, yes, yes and it's about time.

Once more diving into the wealthy archive of the Star Trek Fact Files, the book pulls together all the material on the series you could desire including the station, Runabouts and the iconic USS Defiant

I was, shamefully, not a collector of the Fact Files back in the day. An ex-girlfriend did and I remember spending a substantial part of a day just flicking through the binders and being really impressed with the graphics and notes alongside. Possibly one of the reasons I became an ex!

Anyway... this book just goes that step further. If you've collected and still have the files, then this is money you can avoid spending because 99% of the content is exactly the same but just in one place and not filling half a wall. 

So let's take a look under the hood and flip open this hardback compendium.  The first thing you'll naturally do is compare it to the '90's DS9 Technical Manual. As with previous entries, these books are, when aligned with those schematic heavyweights from the likes of Okuda and Sternbach, like two halves of a medallion. One provides in depth "real world" technical understandings of the workings of just about everything while the Handbook provides a more relaxed and informative read. This handbook book is much more a journey through DS9 rather than a guide on how to fix a broken warp engine and relates more as a story backed by CG as well as episode reference shots which you wouldn't find in the technical manuals but still keeps it grounded in the Trek universe.

Yes, there are technical aspects to it, but this new volume excels in its cutaway drawings of Ops or the Promenade as well as relating the construction path of the station by its Cardassian builders. The superb images also have further areas expanded on such as control panels and in the case of the Promenade it even goes into specific operations on that deck. Notes indicate specific items and key points with the main narrative exploding the background.

The Illustrated Handbook adeptly covers just about everything and links it back to the series itself in many cases. The Cardassian counterinsurgency programmes from Civil Defence are referenced as are the away team desert uniforms from Shadows and Symbols. Even the optolythic data rod from In the Pale Moonlight gets a section devoted to it. That's where the technical manual and this really part ways. Ben Robinson and editor Simon Hugo have gathered together information which is made accessible to all levels of fandom and just looks amazing.

Beyond the station there's even more with the Runabout sections even showing that mid-section only used on TNG as well as a decent recap on the fates of DS9's fleet over the series along with further annotated views of the utility craft.

For those wanting a bit more starship action then there's the Defiant with close up looks into the engine room, the bridge and even the cramped mess hall. Each section not only explains some over technical pieces in plain English but the relation to the show through an in universe explanation. All aspects of the ship are covered from its creation right up to its destruction and resurrection in the final season. There are also pieces on the features of the ship which made it unique in Starfleet.

It's difficult not to come away from this, the fourth book in the reconstituted Fact Files series and be highly impressed, disappointed and slightly hopeful all in one go. Let me explain.

The work that has gone into scouring the man, many volumes of the classic part work cannot be underestimated and to have it all here is, as said, just wonderful but it this going to be the last one since the Fact Files never touched on anything more recently. Is there a chance that we might get an Illustrated Handbook for Discovery for example? I think fans would be excited to see that but it would be a project from the ground up (I have time, Ben, if you need a hand!). 

Just as a good reference book was an absolute necessity for your library back in the 1990's, this is another piece of Star Trek history that every fan should have in whatever form. Personally I'm ecstatic to have a hold of it in a single book that logically details the elements of arguably Star Trek's best and most unique show in one place. At this place and time, HeroCollector is the place to go if you're looking for that more inquisitive look into the workings of the Roddenberry-created universe. Let's have some more. 

The Deep Space Nine Illustrated Handbook will soon be available from HeroCollector in the UK...

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Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Lifting the Dark Veil: Picard in Print from James Swallow

Romulans, Jean-Luc, the USS Titan and something of a mystery. Warning...spoilers potentially ahead!!!

The latest Star Trek hardback, the second Picard novel, flies us into the ‘lost years’ between Nemesis and the end of the 24th century. Focusing most of the time on Captain Riker and the Titan, The Dark Veil manages to do more than just tell a new Star Trek story.

With the Mars tragedy in the recent past, aid to the Romulans has stopped leaving the Empire to the mercy of the imminent supernova that will consume the homeworld. Starfleet has retreated but a few captains are still offering under-the-counter aid.

The Titan itself has been tasked with assisting the Jazari, a reclusive race who have decided to trade it all in and head out into the distant special yonder to live out their days.

Circumstances mean that their society ends up a little more scrutinised than they ever intended and forces an alliance between the Titan and the crew of a Romulan Warbird. 

But lo and behold there's more to it than that and The Dark Veil goes above and beyond to not just begin to fill in the intervening years between Nemesis and Picard but also dovetail the various media strands into one cohesive story.

Several elements from the Picard series materialise here, the Zhat Vash being the most prominent. The narrative from the show in which they are dedicated to the eradication of synthetic life is kept alive as well as their deference to the Tal Sh'iar and the Romulan military. Swallow also manages to weave in references to the Picard prequel comic book series (four issues) that ran at the end of 2019. 

To call this a Picard novel is a little unfair since Jean-Luc makes only two fairly superficial appearances in the book and the bulk of The Dark Veil is told from the standpoint of the Riker family. The unseen and sadly deceased Thaddeus (in Picard) receives a good deal of attention from the start with his life on the Titan examined showing both his intellect and also his alienation from other children due to his parents' position on the ship.

His part in the book is core to driving a lot of the narrative where Deanna is concerned for the most part since they are paired for the back half of the story. Swallow revives Thaddeus' love of languages mentioned in Nepenthe and the benefit of him being an only child here serves perfectly to round out the missing link in the Riker family. Character-wise both Will Riker and Deanna have seasoned and their parental responsibilities are openly on display and certainly there is a mental shift from the 100% focused duty officers of TNG into more rounded individuals where their personal lives have taken hold more than ever before and definitely affect more than a couple of decisions within the text. 

Seeing Riker at his commanding prime and with a family is new experience even within the literary arm of the Star Trek universe before and James Swallow does a masterful job of retaining enough of the TNG Riker thst he's still familiar but has learnt from life, experience, marriage - and a child.

Will Riker does find himself off the bridge of the damaged Titan more than usual here but this provides the chance for him to physically interact not only with the emigrating Jazari but also the Romulan commander. With the political climate as it is following Starfleet's withdrawal from aiding the doomed Romulus, Medaka is a much more approachable and less aloof captain than we have seen before and definitely less over dramatic and demanding than readers will be used to. He's almost - well - human.

Yet the machinations that are happening behind the scenes are what drives the real heart of the novel and once the action kicks in, this book truly picks up a pace that I found very difficult to put down. That's probably about a third of the way in once the pieces are slotted in and moving. 

Helek, the Zhat Vash operative is the best player in The Dark Veil and her inclusion adds a really bleak element of foreshadowing. Indeed, some of the elements of the Zhat Vash themselves were much easier to comprehend through Swallow's novel than they were in the TV series. Her interplay with the Romulan Medaka are a highlight even if the warbird commander has very little room to manoeuvre.

Watch out two for a couple of appearances of some of Star Trek's more diverse races such as the Remans and also a Kelpien plus one Macha Hernandez which will raise a smile to anyone familiar with the development of TNG. But do keep on reading beyond that because there's so much more involved.

The Dark Veil is a tense, well paced and actually, pretty straight-forward novel that helps develop the sandbox that is Picard as a series. James Swallow's characters have aged but are very much recognisable and there's a notable overuse of nods to the past in here with more relevant references to the recent past and associated events that make sense in the context of the book. There is a twist too which is, I'm happy to say, again in keeping with the ethos of the franchise particularly around this period of future history.

It's been a total pleasure to read this one during lockdown and a great road into expanding the new TV frontiers of Star Trek and I do think there's much more of a "feel" of '90's Trek within these pages than we see in the shows at the moment - and that's a good thing when it comes to how our favourite characters are being cared for and portrayed on the page.

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Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Has the Mandalorian Kept Discovery Honest?

Discovery's third season has closed and with it, the most experimental and riskiest season in over fifty years and certainly far from its best.

Before you start gulping raktajinos just to spit them out in sudden disgust, I’m not trashing Star Trek, nor am I making any sharp right turn and vowing never to watch another episode ever again. The rebooting of Discovery meant that season three effectively did the same as the ship and became "-A", beginning the universe building again that was evident back in The Vulcan Hello.
The other thing is that it's hard not to compare this year with the return of Disney's Star Wars offering in the form of The Mandalorian, season two. 

After a rather mixed sequel trilogy that started well with A New Hope reboot The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi turned it all on its head brilliantly. Tragically JJ Abrams, who did so well with kicking Star Trek back into life chose to play it super safe with The Rise of Skywalker. 

It looked like Star Trek could get a little cocky. The reboot movies, on the whole, were well received and Discovery, Picard and Lower Decks were opening the franchise to a whole new set of viewers and annoying loads of the older ones at the same time. Yet, it was going in the right direction and attracting a lot of attention.

It was flashy, it was edgy, the effects were incredible and there was clearly a lot of money sunk into the product. Discovery was complex, offering a new mystery each season - Lorca, the Red Angel, the Burn; something for us to follow week on week. Each episode gave a bit more and attempted to question something and tie itself in to modern day issues but it became reliant on you having to keep up each week. Picard might as well have been a political commentary on the state of the US at times which, if you think back, is sort of the lavish, want-for-nothing opposite that The Next Generation pitched up with in 1987.

Discovery and Picard are definitely not The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine just in the way that those shows weren’t the same as The Original Series. It’s ok to love one, maybe like another and perhaps just enjoy watching Enterprise (for example!). So-called Nu-Trek (ie post 2009) at the least continues the tradition of being controversial but may be burying its allegories a lot deeper than even Gene Roddenberry did. 

Discovery is pushing the boundaries, adding transgender characters, an alien captain, the focus on one main character, huge story arcs, that time jump. Perhaps its agenda in that way is more open than any Star Trek series ever before although it’s trying to appeal to everyone and by default may actually be trying that little bit too hard.

The Mandalorian meanwhile is demonstrating the old KISS principle; Keep It Simple Stupid. Set something up, show it, leave it, return and give a one line reminder. Job done. But more importantly you can dip into this series without worrying too much about what's gone before.  However, is that what fans would want from Star Trek or, as I expect, is there a higher bar to reach with its extensive back catalogue and experience? Rumour has it that the Trek franchise is even considering utilising that rather impressive AI wall technology that has given the Mandalorian a stunning visual look and a huge storytelling advantage.

There's no requirement for a deep and intimate knowledge of the story on The Mandalorian because nothing is over thought. As I saw one review state, it's exactly the story you would be telling if you were dreaming something up with your tub of action figures. But let's remember they are two very different franchises and however much I love The Mandalorian, Star Trek still has a firm grip on my affections but that doesn't mean it can avoid my disappointment.

I can honestly say that if I didn't follow each week of this season of Discovery religiously to find out the next bit of information about the Burn or the Emerald Chain, I would find it difficult to follow. It does limit its re-watch potential and that's something that the '66 - '01 era definitely wins at and should be rectified with the introduction of Strange New Worlds which will be more contained to a story per episode.

The age of the binge-watch does suit the arc nature of the show because you'll be in the loop right to the end. In this way, Star Trek is trying to cater to two types of audience within its framework but... with The Mandalorian a dip in and out or a full re-watch are easily possible and it may well be failing to capture the hearts of the established audience to build itself a new fanbase. Being brutal, for longevity this has to happen and Star Trek needs new fans to keep it alive. These new fans don't have the same mentality as the 1966 or 1987 audience and, love or hate it, they are the future.

With a basic set up, each episode of The Mandalorian still remains fairly self-contained with a specific event. Journeys to different planets are done in a screen wipe (something the spore drive in Discovery now helps with) and importantly it knows what it is, an action series set in space. Star Trek - no, specifically Discovery - is trying to be more. All encompassing and perhaps overstretching itself. Even in my reviews of the show I can feel a dissatisfaction in some of its elements. Burnham is over emotional, characters are under-developed and the genuine cool twist of dropping the viewer into the distant future hasn't created quite the buzz I expected.

There's an overreliance on nods to the past - Voyager, Spock (twice!) and instead of carving out that new, fresh path, the concern to bow to the older generation of fans may now be taking its toll and holding the show back. Homages and references are great but the back catalogue may now be proving to be more of an anchor-weight for Discovery than ever before. Season four has to go boldly where no-one has gone before and explore the 32nd Century as well as bringing the Federation back together. Rebuild and solidify the optimism for today. 

I'm enjoying Discovery as a show but the excitement is missing from a great deal of the episodes in what may well be remembered as Star Trek's most disappointing season ever. It came, it saw, it didn't deliver the thrills we were expecting. Osyraa turned out to be one of Trek's most multifaceted villains and is more than just a baddie toting a gun or wanting to recite poetry on every kill. Her plans are wider, her vision bigger however the plot for the Emerald Chain was lacking. It started the season as a sub-plot but grew to overtake the Burn as the priority of the year. Maybe the only thing lacking was a better way of having her switch from baddie to negotiator and back to baddie in the final pair of episodes.

The Mandalorian didn't go too far. While Discovery was revealing that an errant child was responsible for the downfall of the galaxy (sounds like a parallel to the Ewoks defeating the Empire), it remained focused on a simple rescue mission. It was exciting, it was different because the series had done away with any sub-text, attempts at making social comment or being that little bit too clever.

However, with an additional five episodes over the season length of The Mandalorian, Discovery has managed to do a lot more this year than perhaps it tried to do in years one and two. The bridge crew feel a little bit more fleshed out and recognisable. They're been given more to do this year than push a few buttons and arm the torpedoes or raise a hail. 

Even in the finale, That Hope is You, Part II there's a lot going on but we still have time for part of the episode to follow their narrative. Having that burgeoning cast has not been a friend to the show and if you look to The Mandalorian, the main cast is only a handful of characters each week which again declutters the script and the action. Being only 30 minutes long also has the effect of keeping it on the line from start to finish while Discovery's 50-60 minute run time allows for more expansion of character and story. 

I'm not suggesting that happens every week although I do think the jump to the future is a way for the series to up its game, show that the studio are putting decent money into the show and have enough faith in it that they were prepared to start again. It's been a testing year and the show has run against Star Wars directly on its release days which piles even more pressure. The limp few episodes towards the end of season three did Discovery no favours. Georgiou's send off did not need to be a two-parter and elements of the Book storyline with his home world and the Emerald Chain may have helped build a bigger picture of the thuggish organisation but even now I'm not sure if it was all worth it. 

Essentially though there had to be an episode here to fully introduce both Adira and Book to the viewer and to a greater extent it's been worth it when it's come to the later episodes around Gray and that final twist that Book can now work the spore drive. Give it this, Discovery has not in any way played it safe this season - the time, the place, the foes, the twists - all have gone against expectation. If I recall it was the fired previous producers who promised that optimism and it looks like their thoughts for the year were binned (but I can't substantiate that, it's a theory!). That's left us with this grimy, darker season that actually tried new things, went for new character options and did it all in the middle of a global pandemic.  

Finally though, perhaps we ourselves as viewers have come to expect too much from Discovery hence why The Mandalorian has been so refreshing. It has nothing to prove, the franchise's movies have been less than stellar of late and inversely there's nothing to lose from attempting a live action show. 

With that 800 episode total, fans expect perfection and "their" Star Trek. Nay, they demand it and want The Next Generation or for the next episode to be as if the franchise had continued on TV in 2006. But it won't be and y'know I can live with that because it's a new era and once again things change. No-one can be pleased all the time and I can count several DS9's or Voyager's that bombed in my eyes. Discovery is no different and ultimately while I can bemoan the dips in quality, it's unavoidable.

Who is to say that now The Mandalorian has closed off the Grogu storyline it'll be anywhere near as effective? We won't know for two years since Boba Fett is off on his own quest next year but everything has its day, its highs and lows so I'm sticking around with Trek - there are always...possibilities.

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All images CBS All Access

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Delta Quadrant Fluxx

The seemingly unstoppable Fluxx has launched a fourth variant as part of the Star Trek universe.

Following on from TOS, TNG and DS9, Voyager was the only logical choice. The basics of the game remain the same as detailed in our earlier reviews with that journey home twist that formed the basis of the series. For newcomers, the core goal is to match a pair of cards you have out on the table with the items required to fulfil the Goal in play. As you'll discover, both this and the rules themselves can change as you play, meaning that every game is different.

Lining up as your Keepers this time are Janeway, Chakotay, Tuvok, Paris, Kim, Torres, the Doctor, Seven, Neelix, Kes and, unusually, Future Admiral Janeway. As for ships, Voyager is there alongside the Timeships Aeon and Relativity. As well as the standard equipment options, the Doctor's Mobile Emitter and Coffee also come into play. Interestingly the Emitter, Seven and Future Janeway can pose as Janeway, The Borg and the EMH as required which will open up play options.

On the Keepers, Looney Labs have added a little flourish to proceedings with players needing to "State the nature of the Medical Emergency" when playing the Doctor. The flexible Future Janeway can cancel a Surprise and Torres discards the Malfunction.

Posing as the Creepers we have the Borg (also appearing in the TNG set), the Kazon, the Krenim Timeship and Species 8472. As with all of the previous three packs, the artwork for all the characters, ships and items is impeccable with the sketchy imagery theme running right through all four packs.

Noticably absent from this version (and TOS) is the Meta Rule allowing you to trade five goal cards in at any time, leaving only the Basic Rule card in play at all times. Not that this will make a huge variation to play as I'd be hard pressed to remember an occasion where this has been utilised. Wisely the rather confusing UnGoal remains absent after appearing in only TOS and the TNG packs. 

Within the Actions, the new Caretaker card lets a player remove Janeway, Chakotay, Tuvok, Paris, Kim, the Doctor and Voyager from play and into your hand and then discarding down to five. As for Rules, the only change is the addition of Ancestors Eve (a reference to 11:59 and Gene Roddenberry on one card!!!) wherein players can refer to relatives born before them to take an additional card from the draw pile.

Each of the four versions of Star Trek Fluxx has had its individual spin on the franchise. The TOS and TNG packs are more flexible played together with the Bridge Expansion which leaves DS9 and Voyager there for a smaller, shorter game. The core of Fluxx never changes but players will find which nuances they prefer and probably end up sticking with that pack for the future. 

The Voyager pack certainly covers a lot of key points through its Keepers and Creepers; Caretaker, Year of Hell and 11;59 being three obvious picks. In turn this means that Voyager's set is perhaps most in tune with the show relating more to specific points than any of its predecessors. It makes it in a slight way less generic than you might find any of the packs singularly and isn't stepping near anything as oddball as the Darmok card from TNG.

The ability to use alternates instead of the "actual" Doctor, Janeway or Borg cards is another clever move by Looney Labs and something that only exists in the Voyager pack. I see this as a way to not only to speed things up but to add that moment of uncertainty if a goal requiring any of those cards is played. Does anyone have an alternative? If not where are they???

Looney Labs have refined the Star Trek licence over the four versions and from a production and implementation perspective, Voyager is the cleanest pack of the four with the unnecessary pieces removed, more relevance to the actual series and a couple of new card features trickled in to spice up the pack. This is Fluxx at its most Star Trek and its most complete and just just trounces the DS9 pack for its adherence to the show.

What's your pack of choice for Fluxx? 

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Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Battlecruiser Heaven: The Online Official Starships Collection Issues 9 and 10

The redesigns from Discovery keep on coming with the latest being the Europa Class.

Based on the Nimitz Class USS Europa destroyed at the Battle of the Binary Stars, this leap forward had that distinct STO paint job contrasting the base white against the dark grey highlights. 

It works on screen and also in reality providing the Europa with a striking silhouette. The shape and form are very reminiscent of the Reliant and therefore the Miranda Class Take those two upper nacelles off and it's the spitting image if not updated. There's even a pair of numbered shuttlebays at the back of the hull if you're in any doubt.

What they have done is stretch the saucer out a little more elliptically to the front and set the bridge module back a little more. This in turn provides more surface space for escape pods and sensor emplacements. The hull itself is a lot more complex with more raised structures than the old Reliant again featuring more escape pods.

The classic rollbar/mission pod piece now sweeps backwards and is set a little more forward and almost over the bridge. The paint and decals around the ship and especially here are definitely one of the more precise results from Eaglemoss but there are a few spots where the paint doesn't quite line up the edge of its area most notably on this raised section.

The centrepiece there does contain a notable decal which is, so the magazine explains, the Structural Integrity Field (SIF) Linkage. This piece of cool Online tech means that the Europa can take away the damage inflicted by weapons fire on allied ships. Also there's a Starfleet pennant  which is almost too small to make out but is clearly indicated by two very fine stripes. The rollbar also features the "double neck" which is a distinguishing feature of the Enterprise-F providing additional support to the centre pod. Reliant could have definitely used that. 

The four warp engines are a real piece of digital design mastery. With notched warp vents across the tops (and bottoms!) of all four, there's a stunning impression of depth across the nacelles. Each nacelles is cleanly tipped with a translucent bussard collector and some lovely decalling along the sides. The pennants are sharp as ever with ship registries and also tiny, tiny United Federation of Planets legends. Look at how they're connected to the hull with each bolted on to an extra-wide pylon and that's not something you see on every Starfleet vessel.

The decalling right across this model is really impressive and straight where it matters - which is precisely everywhere. Even on the ventral surfaces the markings are crystal clear with even red trimming and the standard ship registries in place.

The underside of that single hull carries even more detail and a lot more colour even if it is grey, black, white and brown. There are a lot more lifeboat hatches for one but there's also differing surface levels, grilles and a quite impressive lower sensor dome. Inspection of this lower section does raise your awareness of the pixellated paint effect that crops up towards the rear and also on the notched warp engine surfaces. The engines appear to have the pattern mirrored but behind the sensor dome it's more unique and doesn't follow the centre-line repeat which is most unusual.

Construction on this model is excellent and its design represents the more military and robust style path chosen by the Online format. The bold colouring works beautifully for the game but as with all the previous entries it's quite jarring on a physical piece and does step a little way from the canon franchise.

The weight is all to the front although the stand sit is also surprisingly stable. What is becoming increasingly annoying is that the pegs don't seem to fit into the black bases unless you do a fair bit of sanding on the plastic.

The magazine does go a long way to explaining the special features of the Europa including the SIF and as to how the vessel and limited number of its class were designed to be vanguards and capital ships for Starfleet. This is very different to the science mission directive of the Miranda Class but I guess times change. It also recounts the link between this design and the "lost" ships of Yard 39 which is Online's way of building Discovery's vessels into the game. 

Fortunately the plan views do note the key technologies of the Europa including the grilled Command and Control Communications Suite (grey square front of saucer) as well as the location for the EM Phase Conditioner Intakes (end of the black strips, top of saucer). It means, for once, the model does show important into rather than it al being hidden away inside. 

The design section does lean towards how this ship differs from its Discovery predecessor and also from the Miranda Class as well as the reasoning for its existence. The Europa acts as a battle cruiser again revealing the more action-based nature of the online experience. The graphics here to accompany the visually journey are good to have and go even further to establish the fleet lineage.

Finally the issue explains and dissects the nature of Starfleet Operations from the 22nd Century through its evolution to the organisation as it stands in Online. Specifically the article pinpoints key events in the 2400's that have influenced its form.

Klingon fans won't be too upset to see the IKS Mogh make an appearance as our second ship of the Empire in this collection.

Just as deadly, chunky and heavy as the Bortasqu' the Mogh sits in parallel to the Europa as a Klingon battlecruiser. She, like that Starfleet ship, also bears the key distinctions of her race's history but with that Online spin.

A rather heavy, squat model, the Mogh ticks all the right boxes - long neck with command module, raised engine unit to the rear and drop down warp nacelles. It can ONLY be Klingon.

The detailing on her is crazy. The painting distinction between the grey raised panels and the base green coat is spot on. No bleed, no paint echo and it just looks glorious. 

The correct choice was made to paint the windows on around the mid-section of the Mogh with the yellow used sitting just right in alignment. From the nose to the back the battlescruiser has a fine network of panel lines that are visible on the base layer and on the raised hull pieces.

As notable features go, right at the front is a fin-like section sitting between the front forks. Painted and outlined, it clearly shows the main torpedo port from which the battlecruiser launches its innovative, protected projectile weapons.

That whole upper section and out to the wings is a single meta piece with a clip in bottom. Note too that the Mogh has metal nacelles - a major rarity in the starships line as these tend to be glued on plastic separates accommodating translucent grilles and collectors. 

The sharp, bladed nacelles here don’t have any inserts but do have bustard highlights along the tops and continued panel detail. The fact that they are part of that upper hull mould also means that there’s no join lines around the Mogh’s wing shoulders allowing for a smooth transition down to the engines. 

What Eaglemoss have done is build around that central metal element. The stepped-up housing to the back and also the forward bridge module are a separate plastic piece dropped onto the top of the ship. It’s almost indistinguishable from the metal hull apart from the sound it makes and also because there’s a negative space gap just behind the bridge module that would otherwise be impossible. 

Underneath you can make out the slotted in insert segment which is cleverly disguised by the placement of two smaller warp engines beneath the wings. These manage to conceal the gap at the nacelle edges and there’s no deterioration in quality. The panelling and element distinction is first class all the way here.

The speckling of white lights across the ventral surfaces bring a bit of life to the Mogh but the big winner is just how well the hull is defined and the precision of the colour blocks all the way round. Funny thing with both this AND the Europa is that the belly of both crafts have the most to look at!

In the issue 10 magazine the pictures truly make you appreciate the precision of the model to what was realised in the game. Covering the reasons behind its development ‘in universe’, the initial overview of the Mogh extrapolates on its groundbreaking Dynamic Defence Deployment System (DDDS) inspired by the Cardassian Dreadnought weapon. 

The plan views thereafter note this and other key elements of the ship including its significant armour plating plus the location of the impulse engines which all line up with the weighty diecast model.

Designed as a counterpart to the USS Avenger in Online, the Mogh story relates how it had to remain distinctly Klingon but still manage to push the design forward and includes photos to help visualise the process from page to pixels. This is a fascinating read that shows the care and attention given to the universe of Star Trek even online. 

Keeping on the theme, the final entry ahead of the usual ship stats block covers the rise of J’Mpok to power in the Empire along with the challenges he faced on that path. It also includes the reasoning behind the resumption of hostilities with the Federation as well as the threats posed to the Klingons during a pivotal time in their history. The path, as we discover, is not as clean cut as might be expected with differing pressures bringing about change. 

Two magnificent STO ships this month. I mean, the detail is mindblowing and both demonstrate the incredible detail available from the digital ship files. Construction and finishing quality on both is first class. A brilliant pair for the series.

Check out all our Online Starships posts HERE

You can find out more on the Star Trek Online Official Starships Collection by visiting the Hero Collector website HERE

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