Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cold Equations Book Two: Silent Weapons

Silent Weapons picks up a short time after the events of Book One, The Persistence of Memory and from the off this is a very different beast to its predecessor.

Now before we go any further - SPOILER ALERT. If you haven't read the first book, be warned as I WILL be referring to it during this review!

While The Persistence of Memory skipped through time to provide the autobiographical narrative of Doctor Noonien Soong, this is a much more linear affair but much more complicated in the nature of the plot. It does require a bit more concentration to keep track of events right from chapter one - yep, David Mack kicks this sequel off with a lot of balls in the air and the art here is very much in the catching.

I was hesitant as to where this was going to go as Book One really left things open for interpretation. After getting into the heart of the book at about 150 pages I realised that it's as close as Star Trek could come to a taut political thriller. While the Vaslovik plot is carried over from the first novel in the trilogy, it spends a considerable amount of time on the proverbial backburner in favour of political machinations which I found to be more interesting but we'll come to that in turn. Book Two focuses more on the discovery of the android factory from the concluding section of The Persistence of Memory and the way in which the Breen are utilising this find for their own devices. There are numerous locations for the action, namely the Breen homeworld, a control centre for their acquired androids, a secret conference on Orion and then the Enterprise itself. Now you know that at some point they will all come together, the fun is in working out just how Mack will achieve this by the last page. I can assure you it does and - well, I'm not going to ruin it! I will say that it's a "thinker" and you need to be on your toes to keep up with who is doing what, where, when and how otherwise you might be in a big narrative mess by about page 160. 

My interest in this novel was piqued more than with the first not just for the multi-faceted thriller but also thanks in no small part to its supporting cast. The Gorn, one of my favourite alien races in the franchise (kudos for that, Mr Mack), are heavily featured and we get name-checks for the Tholians and the Tzenkethi too as part of the shadowy Typhon Pact. Even the Romulans manage an appearance to remind us that they're still a power to be reckoned with in this quadrant. I hope that Mack utilises the Gorn again in the future and that we get to see the Tholians in action and not just as a technology reference.

Reading this purely on my journey back and forth to work could have been a nightmare due to the strands that Mack lays out but I kept up with a couple of flick-backs to earlier chapters and previous pages so it was well worth it. Occasionally there are plot reminders from the cast which helps keep you in the picture. Everything has a purpose (as we know!) and no action is there for the sake of filling a page. As with my first review I don;t want to give too much away as it would ruin the experience that I was lucky to have upon opening chapter one - needless to say the Breen are up to no good here and Data gets implicated very early on, bringing the Enterprise to the Orion homeworld. Some of the initial chapters might seem irrelevant in some of the details described and you are left wondering - but persevere and you will not be disappointed. If there's one thing I'm learning from David Mack is that everything has a purpose!

One thing that I do enjoy within Mack's work is that he just loves playing with known Star Trek concepts. It happened in The Persistence of Memory and it's in action once again here. We're reintroduced to Captain Morgan Bateson, formerly of the USS Bozeman and it was impossible NOT to think of him as anyone other than Kelsey Grammer in "Cause and Effect" from The Next GenerationOrion was never visited in the multiple TV series but Mack builds on his visual impressions littered into Book One and fleshes them out further, even to the point of taking us deep into their slums and teaching the reader about the nature of their society. Fascinating stuff but my hat truly has to come off for his insights into the Gorn who have only managed two story appearance across the five series and ten films.  In particular their view of art is intriguing and I was quite envious of how Mack has established their culture, hierarchy and motivations within this story. While you would think it would be enough to focus on providing an insight into just the one race as part of the narrative, don't be deceived as the Breen get their own fair amount of page time in which we learn much more about the structure and taboos of their society while we watch them unfold their plans section by section.

Twisting thriller into mystery into action, Mack weaves the after-effects of The Persistence of Memory into this new story with deadly androids doing their masters' bidding, secretive Breen and even the UFP President thrown into the soup for good measure - one gripe; why did the President's bodyguards have to verge on the cliched CIA-style agent with dark glasses and a suit? Minor point but it's the 24th Century....! 

This new Data is something of an oddment and whenever I was reading this character I felt about as uneasy as Geordi - it's Data but it's not. The memories are there but this is Data version two and while you can see the character is there, if only through the absence of contractions in his speech, he feels different just in the way he carries himself through the narrative and on more than one occasion I made myself question who this character was. David, if this is part of the plan, I applaud you because it worked. The "new" Data is centre-stage for a good portion of this novel as are Picard, Geordi and Worf and all four characters are well defined and seem to work better within this story than they did in Book One. While the latter three characters are familiar the resurrected Data really is intriguing and slightly eerie. Indeed  it is his predicament which drives the story initially and the trail of crumbs and events from that which power the story along.  The pacing is great as we move from one set piece into investigation, to diplomacy, to private moments and then back into action once again - there's no let up so if you have to put this book down beware of what point you take a break - what you've just read may be very relevant in a few pages time or you might need to recall it in a few chapters!

Anyway, a lot of this book as you will have gathered, is focused on androids and Soong-type androids to be precise. They instill a great deal of paranoia into the story because you just don't know where or when they will turn up, what will happen when they do and whether or not they will succeed in their actions. Some of the descriptions of their actions are brutal and we can see that they are focused solely on their mission's goal. The androids are expendable but there is definitely more to them than you first think considering what they are capable of doing and who is in control of their minds. Manipulation is the name of the game.

Alongside the main story is a sub-plot revolving around Picard and Crusher which does link into the main thread at one point later on. I felt this was a particularly effective thread as it dealt with the nature of their relationship as a family and as shipmates. Mack drops in a note about the age difference between La Forge and Smrhova at one point - because these guys aren't getting any younger and it does waft up scents of nostalgia because of the length of service we have seen the main characters over. 

The Jean-Luc/Beverly plot reminds us that they are human and that at some point things have to change, especially as the captain is no longer single and there are important matters to consider for their future and the safety of his son. I'll be interested to see if this transitions into the final book, The Body Electric. I'm also fascinated to know how the Vaslovik plot is going to be continued in the finale as we have effectively skipped over it from the first few chapters of Silent Weapons. It was the reason for Data's presence on Orion but other things got in the way!

Overall I probably enjoyed this story much more than I did with The Persistence of Memory, possibly because I understood a bit more about the expanded Trek universe and also because the first book had "broken" me back into the TNG universe. Looking back, the first novel is very much a set up piece which lays a lot of seeds and possibilities for the second book and doubtless the third will bring all the threads together neatly (I say that now!). Not a book to pick up on its own but if you've pounded through the first book this is certain to satisfy your curiosity and leave enough questions unanswered (again) to ensure that the concluding book is an essential purchase.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations Book Two: Silent Weapons is now available  from Simon and Schuster ISBN 9781451650730 priced £6.99

Thursday, 21 February 2013

All Grown Up: Star Trek: The Next Generation Season Five

I've always considered there to be two eras to The Next Generation - the pre-Piller years of '87 to '89 and the remaining five seasons from '89 to '94.  Of the latter, season five is the one I approach with the most trepidation and following my re-watch over the last couple of months I still hold the same view.  

Of the "later" Piller years I find this to be the most uneven batch of episodes.  There are some out and out classics in here that would make it onto everyone and anyone's top list of TNG episodes and possible even a few that would challenge for some of the best installments ever but they are slightly tarnished by those they sit alongside and more-so than other seasons. 

So what's this season about? Originally I was going to call this blog Mortality and Morality as Sarek dies ("Unification"), Worf dies ("Ethics"), Geordi and Ro "die" ("The Next Phase"), Data 'dies' ("Time's Arrow"), everyone dies over and over again in "Cause and Effect" and that's just the main cast! You're hard pressed to find an episode where someone isn't on the verge of death or ending up on the slab during this year - and then there's the morality bit. The dangers of addictive gaming ("The Game"), homosexuality and conformity ("The Outcast"), mental rape ("Violations"), euthanasia ("Ethics"), enforced parenthood ("New Ground"), slavery ("The Perfect Mate") and dealing with horrific trauma ("Hero Worship") all get an airing this season but there seem to be chunks of these more serious and personal stories through the season providing that uneven keel and perhaps making it quite a hard series to access in some respects.

So what did I actually like about Season Five?  Quite a lot if I'm honest.  While it is uneven in places, it's still a cut above TNG's first two seasons. More importantly the fact that it's willing and able to tackle such difficult subjects through the year shows that TNG had really come of age. The first two years of the child learning to walk were distant memories, seasons three and four marked the show making itself stable, polishing the finish and then embarking on season five as a grown up; well experienced and prepared. However the placing of the more thought provoking episodes to the action-orientated installments could have done with a little bit more planning but on the whole it's a good effort.

The opening conclusion to "Redemption" was never going to live up to the hype of the previous season's cliffhanger but it's still an enjoyable start to the year. Commander Sela arrived and returned Denise Crosby to the Trek fold, popped up again in "Unification" - and then was promptly never seen again. It's OK but there was much better to come - virtually from the next episode when we encountered Picard in his trendy new captain's jacket and Darmok, at Tenagra of course. For me this was the real sign that TNG had grown up, as was the introduction of the semi-regular character, Ensign Ro in the eponymous episode. Semi-regular is perhaps a bit strong for Ro as she only made a series of fleeting appearances from here to "Preemptive Strike" right at the end of TNG's seventh year (mental note that I should do something about her in the future). The promised conflict wasn't to the levels that we would see from Major Kira in DS9 but her arrival did add a different edge that the Enterprise hadn't seen since its inception in 1987. It also introduced us to the Bajorans - a race whose actions and involvement with the fish-like Cardassians would affect the back stories of the two series that followed.

Indeed, as a year for "big" events such as the creation of the Bajoran back-story  they were pretty massive - and all I need to say here is Spock and probably "The Inner Light". The latter of which is, of course, rated as one of the great TNG moments. No question can be made of Patrick Stewart's performance here and no matter how many times I've watched it I still get a bit of a lump in my throat at the end. The story has everything that Picard can't have and all in less than 25 minutes. In the case of the former, what can we say - the return of a legend and finally a point where TNG became comfortable with its past. For more on this one, I would refer you to my recent blog on the seminal two-parter.

It was quite a season for returns in fact. The Crystalline Entity came back (and shattered), Sarek came (and went), Sela turned up (and went twice), Wesley came back (twice), Lwaxana appeared for her customary story and wouldn't be back until season seven (luckily); all that was missing was Q - but he would receive two installments the following year to make up for his notable absence. Another returnee who would be sticking around in the same "recurring" vain as Ensign Ro was Worf's son, Alexander. He would pop in and out over the course of the next two seasons and a few occasions on DS9. Alexander had the enviable ability to age at a phenomenal rate and also sadly gets lumbered with a heavy weight family stories this season. While they aren't my favourite installments by several country miles they do provide a lot of development for Worf as he becomes more comfortable with parenthood. Out of the whole cast he's probably the most used character this year however the shame is that the stories he is provided with are either Alexander related or honour related which is a shame because in other seasons we see much more to the character than these two facets which he becomes bogged down with in season five.

Brannon Braga is definitely one of the heroes of this season from a writing perspective. While "The Game" is a fair segment his real highlight is the mind-bending repetitive "Cause and Effect". Jonathan Frakes also deserves a fair amount of praise here for the direction here. It can't have been the easiest to work on especially as the whole episode effectively happens over and over again. Somehow Frakes comes up with something slightly different for each cycle to keep the audience attention and keep the story fresh each time. This is probably one of my favourites along with the classic "Darmok", Ronald D Moore's "The Next Phase" (which we would see a twist on in season seven) and "Conundrum" - if I'm not mistaken this was a few years before Buffy dropped Dawn into its fold without any explanation. It's also a wonderful occasion for the cast to play out of character and add a new "regular" for 30 minutes. Worf decides he's captain, Data mans Ten Forward and the mismatched Riker and Ro take their relationship to another level. If it had been made in the first two seasons it would have been an instant classic but dropping as it does in the middle of the fifth, it's overshadowed by others mentioned here. Still, one that is certainly on my "To Watch Again" list for the future.

I've mentioned it already but there are some highly moralistic episodes in season five, perhaps more than any other year of TNG. While this gets a bit of a drag later on, it's not the lowlight of the year. That honour has to be shared between two installments later in the year. First, "Cost of Living" , for the amusement park and mud bath sequences as well as the double hit of Lwaxana Troi and Alexander in the same 45 minutes. Way too much for me to deal with as I'm not a flag waver when it comes to Deanna's mother. I will watch them but it's against preference. I find this a particularly grating story that does damage to the character of Worf in some respects and is another Alexander/Worf family story where they have some issues to resolve in their father/son relationship. Writing this now I think this is why I'm not a great fan of this year. There's a lot of schmaltz and that goes for another story too.

Then there's the misfire that is "Imaginary Friend". While the story is solid enough I think the tragedy is that it is built around a young girl, Clara, who is not one of the cast and as such the emotional bond that has been built over years isn't there. In essence what happens to her isn't going to have much effect on the series on the whole. A nice little space filler but a shame when compared to some of the shows surrounding it. Kids are great; I'm happy to admit that, but the writers of TNG never really got to grips with them and in these two pieces it is very evident. Honestly, I feel a little sorry for Brian Bonsall getting lumbered with some of the scripts here in season five. Luckily he got "Rascals" and "A Fistful of Datas" in the following year which made up for it.

These are probably the only two episodes I could point to as being disappointing in the 91 - 92 season. My re-watch has discovered that "Unification" is a lot better than I remembered and "The Masterpiece Society" is a far better story than I thought aged 15. While we're mentioning that, it's also worth dropping in "Violations" - what a great story and so well played out. It's something a little edgy for TNG and the whole cast do a superb job with a great script from  Pamela Gray and Jeri Taylor. Not a bad result I would say considering this was a season I was not overly enthused to start watching again.

Getting later into the season the final four episodes are back-to-back brilliance; fast paced and jaw dropping sci-fi. The Borg are back; Geordi and Ro get to walk through everything in the budget-smashing "The Next Phase" and then there's the oft mentioned Picard-fest of "The Inner Light". However I must reserve my favourite moment of the entire year for the pre-credits sequence in the season finale, "Time's Arrow". While you just know it will be a cliffhanger and that there is absolutely no hope that the conclusion is going to do the first part any justice it contains one image that has stayed with me for many years and totally shocked me when I first saw a picture of it in the Star Trek Chronology (blast from the past!). It is of course Data's head on the ground in a cave under San Francisco. Apart from the face of Locutus on the Enterprise viewscreen at the end of season three I don't think that there's another image in TNG history that is burned into my mind as well as this one. I still get a chill seeing it now!

So what's next? Well, season six and the conclusion to Data's time-travelling predicament. Now I enjoyed season five but I have quite fond memories of its successor as all fans do. Will they be the same this time around and what episodes will cause a change of heart?

Oh - and what the HELL is going on with Riker's hair in Season Five?!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Love's Labours Warped: Trek's Romantic Jinx

In line with it being Valentine's Day I thought it would be a golden opportunity to take a skating glance at the romances of Star Trek. Well, OK, let's be fair, there aren't many that end happily.

Off the top of my head I can name a couple that actually end up Happily Ever After. Admittedly it takes Troi and Riker over a decade to get their act together and Tom and B'Elanna are married in another quadrant but on the whole it's never good news if you're attempting a long term relationship - or even consider a long term relationship in the Star Trek universe. Fair to say this is almost an anti-Valentine's post. Apologies. I'm not a "bah humbug" in the romance department. I love my other half very much - but I have to blame a mid-morning Twitter conversation with @Starfinder4 over top Trek romances. I just took it a step further. A bit. OK, a lot.

Starting back aboard the NX-01, there was only ever one relationship that developed. That between Trip Tucker and Vulcan first officer, T'Pol. Just to remind us all here, there's nothing particularly ordinary about this relationship from the start - it's a clone of the ship's engineer that puts his foot into it and instigates the romance which, as seems to be a trait in later examples (or earlier dependent on your temporal perspective) it's not appreciated until its almost too late and then things are complicated with the revelation of a child within the closing episodes - oh, and the death of Trip in the series finale, "These are the Voyages" - a little permanent and something of a recurring theme as we may come to see, whatever universe you're wandering through.

The original series steered away from any kind of serious relationships - there were guest stars week in week out, Edith Keeler, Leila Kalomi, Lenore Karidian, Deela, Mira Romaine, Natira...the list goes on for the crew, but none of the crew saw anything lasting. Kirk had something of a relationship at some time and David Marcus exists to prove it but the romance there has moved on. The original crew were not one to put down roots on screen and develop anything as the series and movies progressed. The only way we know Sulu became a family man is by the appearance of Demora Sulu at the helm of the Enterprise-B in Star Trek Generations. Stability here is a no-go and it keeps with the more military stance portrayed particularly in the six movies. Guest cast have a purpose and you can guarantee they won't be around next week to pick up the pieces.

Sidestepping from the "Prime" universe for a moment we do need to mention the original series in the Abrams remix. The whole Spock and Uhura thing. Ok, so in the 60's series there were on occasion some suggestions - minor, almost insignificant moments - and on one occasion a scene that was cut from "Way to Eden" that might've pushed not only the interracial boundaries but interplanetary ones too (for more on this take a look at the superlative Star Trek 365 book). Anyway, what is it with this relationship? It comes from nowhere in the Abrams universe and really blew me sideways. I didn't see it coming and I suspect neither did fandom. Rightly though it's back in Star Trek Into Darkness and not shied away from in the slightest. I look forward to seeing how this will progress - oddly at some points I can almost see Nichelle Nichols and Leonard Nimoy attempting some kind of soppy moment at the end of The Wrath of Khan if this is the way Gene Roddenberry had chosen to develop his characters. Can you imagine what that would've ended up like?!

However the path of love and true romance is anything but easy when you're in Starfleet. While Riker and Troi manage to tie the knot in the final adventure of The Next Generation crew in Nemesis it's a rocky path that we're never really sure if they're together or not. Riker is there to listen and comfort when the moment arises and on occasion we're reminded of their relationship with the mere mention of the word "Imzadi" first uttered in "Encounter at Farpoint". It would take Troi a rather unforeseen sojourn away with Worf in the seventh season and some aging regression thanks to the planet of the Bak'u in Insurrection to get together. That's one heck of a long time to get it right!

Picard and Dr Crusher were almost as bad having "something" to say at just the wrong time everytime. It would take an alternative future to eventually marry them off - and get divorced. Those alternative futures/realities can really emphasise the way relationships in Trek just aren't meant to run smoothly! Case in point is "Parallels" which really kicked off the ill-conceived Troi/Worf thing after some tentative suggestions back in the midst of season five and following that up would be Voyager's "Endgame" with the tragedy of Seven of Nine and Chakotay's romance. Luckily there it's given some hope through the ship's return to Earth at the story's finale with all parties intact. Thank goodness for time-travelling admirals. You can never find enough when you need them.

Perhaps it's DS9 that really hits Relationship Factor Nine. Not only do we have the franchise's most stable family unit in the form of the O'Brien clan (although we never actually saw any of the romance pre-wedding) but everyone seems to be loved up or has been loved up by the series end. Sisko provides that perfect mangled relationship structure - boy is married to girl, boy loses girl to Borg, boy finds girl, girl turns out to be terrorist, girl goes to prison, girl comes out of prison, boy and girl marry, girl find out she's pregnant, boy becomes god-like being. Phew. Think that covered it. Romance-wise it's good to see the captain get to grips with a new relationship, move on from past tragedy and love over the course of the series to the point of marriage - the only captain to do so in fact. The crippling blow is that Sisko is destined for another path and his wife and son are left behind.

Kira and Odo fair no better in all honesty. For a series which is set in one place and can gather up a great deal of continuity, romance is not one of its strengths! They only get together after Kira finds out from Odo's alternate future self in "Children of Time" that he's always loved her and even then she keeps her distance for another year until "His Way" in season six. It seems like a good strong relationship with a wonderfully romantic beginning in the Vic Fontaine simulation with their first kiss on the Promenade in front of just about everyone. However, like Sisko and Kasidy Yates it's doomed to end with Odo's return to save the Great Link in "What You Leave Behind". Considering how long it took for this to come to pass in the first place, the ending is left open for a potential return but with the closure of the series we know that can only ever happen in the written, fictional Trek universe. This is one of my favourite relationships of the series as we see it develop and never really fade away. They are still clearly in love as Odo melts away at the end of the series.

In two bodies Dax is also something of a handful when it comes to love on DS9. First there's repeated, fumbling interest from Julian Bashir during the show's fledgling years, even mentioned in close proximity to Jadzia's eventual marriage to Worf in "You Are Cordially Invited". Theirs is an interesting and tense romance harbouring on some serious pain one would suggest given their mutual admiration for Klingon traditions. There's so much to their partnership that Worf risks his career to save the life of his wife ("Change of Heart") and they even consider the possibility of starting a family - as we know it would not come to pass with Jadzia's untimely death in "Tears of the Prophets". This left the way open for Bashir and Jadzia's successor Ezri to develop the relationship hinted at back in "Emissary" but dismissed by the symbiont's then-host. If it's not tragedy-tipped then you can suspect that your Alpha Quadrant relationship will certainly have its twists and turns as it blossoms. Nicely though we do have the O'Brien family and Rom and Leeta to remind us that relationships can work. In the example of the latter it's truly opposites attract and they wouldn't be the couple you would have put together when either of these characters was initially introduced - indeed we all probably thought Leeta was going to end up with Dr Bashir. But hey, it's deep space and anything can happen. It's a great love story with Rom eventually as the heroic husband ("Call to Arms") and Leeta as a strong wife and step-mother.

Spare a thought for our favourite Klingon though - love and relationships really aren't his raktajino. His mate, K'Ehelyr is killed by his nemesis, Duras, so Worf in turn kills him and his wife is murdered at the hands of Gul Dukat in DS9's Bajoran temple. Somehow Counsellor Troi survived! It's a shame and his luck with women is even passed over into the fictional universe with David Mack's The Persistence of Memory from the Cold Equations trilogy. Perhaps someone should tell Worf to steer clear of anything long term - then the odds must be against him as he does have more screen time than any other Trek character. Oddly apart from the instances of relationships for Worf noted here he tends to steer clear of female company. Maybe he knows something we don't - or perhaps is even more aware of his jinx than we are!

So enjoy Valentine's Day if you're partaking of it's romantic vibes. What have we learned here? Don't date a Klingon? Make sure that you have a relationship in the Delta Quadrant if you do? Don't give up on a Trill (at least not for a couple of lifetimes) or a Betazoid? Possibly worth keeping away from anyone who happens to be deeply involved in the spiritual background of an alien people too....never know what could happen there.

Just think yourself lucky that you're not posted out in deep space or living in an alternative timeline considering what we've glimpsed over here - and the less said about the romance between two lizard creatures, the better. Add avoiding crossing the warp threshold to the above list in that case....

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Problem with Hugh: "I, Borg" Dissected

So here we are, my time with Season Five of The Next Generation is drawing to a close. However, before we hit the cliffhanger of "Time's Arrow" or the monumental "The Inner Light", let's pause and take a moment to consider the Borg.

Coming almost two years after "The Best of Both Worlds", it's been well overdue for a return of the assimilation specialists but was this really what we wanted as fans from their next appearance?

Actually before we get there, I need to talk about something else.

Of all the blogs I have written thus far, this one has been the most difficult to get right or more precisely get to a point where I'm happy with the content. It's much like my A-Level English Language exam I guess; I had the choice of two extracts to analyse and decided on the one I was much more familiar with.  It was, of course, a bad idea and possibly cost me an A grade.  Now, I'm not saying that I should always write about the less interesting episodes or the ones I am not overly thrilled to discuss but this is the first one that I've talked about that I genuinely liked on the original viewing and still like today. It is perhaps that sense of familiarity that makes it more difficult to construct something on the page around the themes and concepts of the episode without overcooking it and ruining an otherwise very enjoyable fifth season outing.

My initial conclusion as I tapped away on the keyboard was that "I, Borg" sanitises the Trek villains, giving them a personal face which in turn makes you feel sorry for them. In fact it isn't and I couldn't be further from the point if I tried. What we actually get is a piece which looks at what happens when you instill a Borg with individuality; is it right to send it back home on a suicide mission? It reinforces that the whole is much stronger than the parts it is constructed from and that the creatures beneath the masks may not actually have the same drives as they are programmed with by the Hive mind.

Importantly in the bigger Star Trek picture, this marks the first of several instances where the audience is made to re-examine some of Star Trek's more prominent nemeses. In  Deep Space Nine we had the opportunity to analyse the Jem'Hadar on several occasions including "The Abandoned" and "Hippocratic Oath" while Voyager encountered a replica of Starfleet Academy to study Species 8472  "In the Flesh". In itself this was something of a considerable turnaround given that the crew joined forces with the Borg to stop them only a year previous. In fact from the fourth season of the Voyager, the presence of Seven of Nine was a weekly reminder that the Borg could be saved and "unassimilated" (but that's for another blog in the future). 

As I've mentioned, I was all out prepared to go down the line that this is about making the Borg human when actually both "I, Borg" and the occasions listed here give us a better insight into the cultures of these races. In fact I would go as far to say more than any other episodes where they appear. Indeed, I would highlight them as essential viewing if you have any interest in these species and their understanding their background within the Star Trek universe.

Within "I, Borg" there are five key individuals whose actions and thought processes carry the story, helping to unravel a bit more about the cybernetic lifeforms. It these people we need to focus on to understand the core of the episode, namely Picard, Geordi, Beverly, Hugh (the Borg) and Guinan. Initially it is Doctor Crusher who twists the captain's arm to bring the lone survivor aboard to receive treatment that will save his life and Picard is vehemently against bringing it aboard although ultimately convinced otherwise.  It of course allows for another chance for the crew to get a close look at a Borg and while it means we see a "proper" Borg under the microscope it becomes apparent that it could have other uses.

Picard is placed in a difficult situation here. He himself was captured and mutilated by the Borg to speak for them in "The Best of Both Worlds". During his fencing match with Guinan, the bartender is keen to show,by faking an injury, that the Borg will take no prisoners no matter whether the Enterprise has saved one of their number of not. Even though he is haunted by the experience as Locutus it seems is is uncertain how to proceed given that this lone drone is aboard the ship. Guinan is adamant that any sign of weakness will be stamped on by the Borg and Picard is clearly being too soft and for once, she's probably spot on.

Picard is not the only one guilty of changing judgement and generally being unsettled as the episode evolves. Before he has one to one contact, he is all for the use of their prisoner as a conduit to fire an "...endless and unsolvable puzzle...", as Data puts it, into the Collective consciousness which will disable their neural network. He refers to the drone as "it" when discussing its need to feed in the holding cell. His second discussion with Guinan wherein he notes that she "...tore my foil out of my hand..." to demonstrate that the Borg were dangerous when Picard felt sorry for her. Jean-Luc is clear that he does not want to speak with Hugh and that IT is a Borg and not a person but once he has the final face to face meeting where Hugh uses the first person to describe himself, Picard is made to realise that this individual has become different; he is no longer the single-minded machine from the beginning of the episode.  

When Hugh chooses to resist the commands of "Locutus" he then comes to terms with the fact that this drone has been changed.  He is not like the others however they will still come for him no matter what stands in the way  It is a difficult journey for the captain because of his own personal experiences and I'm not still not convinced that he would ultimately even entertain the possibility of giving Hugh asylum based on the past but this is Jean-Luc at one of his most vulnerable moments, to some degree reliving a horrific nightmare and I believe that it is impairing his judgement but ultimately he sees that sending Hugh back - at his own choice - would spread "a feeling of singularity..." through the Collective which could be worse than the initial concept of a computer virus.

Guinan too is in an equally difficult position, perhaps from the other side of the coin. She, like Picard, shares a dialogue with their Borg prisoner but her initial outlook is strongly against any reasoning while Picard approaches the situation with at least a pinch of skepticism  She reminds Geordi that he, like Picard, cannot let his guard down because the rest of the Collective will come looking whether they like it or not.  They are relentless in their purpose, Ultimately her perceptions, at least in regards to Hugh, are altered because he shows an understanding of individualistic terms and concepts that he has himself acquired through interaction with the crew. Guinan even needs the captain to convince her that they should send him back as a sleeping weapon and incites him in turn to meet with the drone.

Notably it's not often that TNG delves into some form of continuity. It's a facet that would be utilised most significantly in DS9 and to some extent through the Borg/Hirogen/Kazon arcs (for example) within Voyager. Perhaps only Q and the Klingon/Worf/Gowron arcs are the only true examples within this series and with the Borg we get a third. Their first appearance ("Q Who") was referenced in "The Best of Both Worlds" and "I, Borg" in turn reflects on the latter with the benefit of a two year gap. It's almost as if they waited long enough for us to "forget" about the Borg before bringing them back. The crew and the viewer are invited to revisit our perceptions of these creatures and now I actually think nothing has changed in my mind as to how we should view the Borg after the credits roll.  They are still going to assimilate and seek to improve themselves.  Hugh is the exception that proves the rule. Whether it was conceived that the Borg would then be left in utter turmoil after this I don't know but their next appearance reigns in this attempt to destroy them in extreme measures - and I intend to examine that in more detail later.

Now originally in draft one, I was going to propose the question about whether or not we need to see a Borg become an individual  however as it progressively rewrote itself I came to see that we do need this and here's why. 

Essentially, what do we know about the Borg by this time? Very little apart from the whole assimilation thing, generally malevolent, unstoppable, adaptive and fly around in big (and small) cubes conquering anything in their path - but getting one Borg on its own gives both the TNG crew and us, the viewer, the chance to see a Borg drone up close and personal; to see how it reacts in an unfamiliar environment and also to understand that there is a living being under all those technological additions. In a way, the Borg themselves might even be slightly responsible for Hugh's transformation given the fact he adapts to his environment the longer he is there. To put it even more bluntly - he assimilates the culture around him and forms his own choices, the last of which is to be returned to the surface to be collected by the Borg. Whether that was intentional or not, this episode does make you think and while we watch the crew develop their opinions as Hugh develops his personality we do change our views but they are strictly limited to this drone and no others.  The Borg are still the Borg just as the Jem'Hadar are still the Jem'Hadar - lest we be reminded of Chakotay's speech in Voyager in reference to the scorpion and the fox; "It''s in (their) nature." to be the way they are.

Now going back to the question I posed right at the start of this blog - is this what we wanted? Ok, so it's been almost two years since Picard became Locutus and we saw the aftermath of Wolf 359. In this time the incident has become a memory to both the viewer and the Enterprise crew. Now it would have been an easy call to give us something good similar as even Riker notes that they are at war with the Borg (even though there has been no formal declaration). Instead Rene Echevarria flips the sentiment of the story and force a reevaluation while reminding us that these guys are still out there and could threaten at any time (can't wait for my Star Trek: First Contact blog). In the conference lounge for example we are strongly reminded by Riker that the Federation is at war "(even though) there's been no formal declaration..." noted by Beverly, who is the only one capable of seeing past the Collective to the person beneath. She does that from the very start, retaining the medical, objective eye from start to finish and it is her viewpoint that all eventually transition to. Beverly can see beyond the single-mindedness and the ruthlessness to the teenager who she sees as deeply vulnerable. Through all their dislike and distrust of the Borg, it is the doctor and Geordi that dramatically alter Hugh - it is effectively their "fault" he becomes an individual and they have to deal with it... And will have to again with more serious consequences.

I like how the conflicts rise between the crew and it is a rarity to see so many opinions generated, discussed and actioned within such a short frame of time. In many ways I Borg needs to be singled out because it embraces those differences in a world that was envisioned without conflict by the then recently passed on Gene Roddenberry. Do we need to feel sorry for the Borg? As a whole, probably not because of what they represent and the still vague background that existed in 1992. It wouldn't be until Voyager that we have a more defined perspective on the effect of becoming Borg, being a part of their Hive mind for so long and then being disconnected. Here we have no point of reference to Hugh's past. Has he always been Borg? Was he assimilated? We have no idea and his subsequent appearance wouldn't give much more.

Knowing what we do now about the way in which the Collective operate,  this seems like a missed opportunity BUT saying that there is consideration of a plan to cause havoc in the Collective however ultimately it comes down to being human and Geordi and Beverly's interaction with Hugh that causes the most significant changes. Ultimately Hugh is given a choice and his decision is based on what he sees as the best for the whole, for the ship and for Geordi. He realises that they cannot be assimilated and his return will stop that from happening.

Our individuality here is the ironic twist. Whlie it becomes a concern within the final quarter of the show that they cannot force Hugh to go back it will disrupt the Collective of his mother ship however not as we may have thought as he is transported away at the conclusion. That's where "I Borg" proves to be a further winner. Actions, for once, have consequences and again this is where it wins against other "humanising" episodes. The results of the Enterprise's interference will be felt. We do not experience this in Voyager or Deep Space Nine however the thread is that while one individual can be different it does not mean that the whole can also be altered.

So what do I actually conclude from all this?   Aside from it being one of my longer efforts of late and taking a damn long time to construct I'm actually pleased with it and haven't ruined an episode.  We know the Borg a little better here after "The Best of Both Worlds" because we assess them on a more intimate level and we are not simply seeing them pursed by the Enterprise to Sector 001. Writing this has taught me to go a little easier on occasion and not to look for things that aren't there but I want to make it clear that I won't do a plot synopsis.  That's not what I'm about. I have some ideas about episode blogs for the future so they don;t end up just being me droning on about episode after episode. 

I want discussion and that's what you'll find here.  My thoughts and feelings on Trek in its different shapes, forms and sizes.  "I, Borg" is a solid episode, it does indeed make you think about the Borg and what's really underneath. To some degree you do feel that it's not a great conclusion in the fact that Hugh is sent back, but the final beam out shot where he looks to Geordi heralds something that COULD have been a lot more interesting than it turns out to be...

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Cold Equations Book One: The Persistence of Memory

They say honesty is the best policy - so here it goes. I haven't read a Star Trek novel for a long, long, long time. Even then that might not be enough to cover it.

The last Trek novel I read was probably something from Voyager while it was still on TV so that gives you an indication of how long it's been. Now, to be fair I've been much more of a fan of the background material such as Action!, Where No One Has Gone Before, numerous companions, technical manuals and the like but I felt now was the time to start getting back into something meatier; I was starting to have withdrawals for new Star Trek stories.

So that's brought me to this point and just to be a bit different, here's how it all began a week or so ago....

Admittedly I don't think Spielberg is quaking in his boots after that, but hey, it's the first attempt and something a bit different - oh yes, and that is me; no stunt double or pre-recorded audio I can assure you.

I have the perhaps enviable benefit of a bus journey to work and back five days a week which gives me ample opportunity for a good read and in the case of this book I was not disappointed. What I would add here is a SPOILER ALERT - it is very, very likely I am going to mention plot details in here so if you haven't read it, skip to the final paragraph for my overall opinion!

Set over a time period of 16 years, numerous planets and including several major races, there is one thing I can say without doubt after just the first few chapters of The Persistence of Memory - David Mack knows his material and of that fact alone he should be very proud. The time period of 2367 to 2384 covers events from the last few minutes of The Next Generation's "Brothers" to a point a few years after the credits rolled on Star Trek Nemesis but not in a linear manner.

Mack has split this trilogy opener into three sections with the first and last set in the "present" of 2384 while the central - and perhaps more substantial third - is an autobiographical account of events from one of the novel's main protagonists. Let's first summarise the plot here before we get into the meat of this story.

The Enterprise is called to the Starfleet Annex of the Daystrom Institute on Galor IV by Captain Bruce Maddox but upon arriving discovers that the facility has been attacked and the Soong-type androids under the cybernetics expert's care have been stolen including Lore, Data's daughter Lal and B-4. Worf, now first officer of the Enterprise leads search teams across the planet to locate the missing androids before they can be secreted from the surface...

As an opening section and probably due to the fact that it's been a while since I last read a Trek novel I was wow-ed and at some points confused.  Mack does an excellent job of introducing us to the story.  The first chapter or so is a nice mini-potted history of both Maddox ("The Measure of a Man") and the various droids that were in his care. Fans will no doubt remember Lore, Lal, B-4 and Juliana Tainer but I admit it took a few moments to recall the three early non-functioning prototypes mentioned back in "Inheritance". Now it's been a while since we last actually saw this crew on the screen so there have been a few changes in the faces; no more Troi, Riker or Data (of course), instead we have a Cardassian exchange officer Glinn Dygan at Ops and Jasminder Choudhury at Tactical. Worf now takes his place as Number One next to Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I think David Mack has done an excellent job of recreating the Enterprise crew and adding his own flavourings including the fact a certain captain and doctor are now married with a son. Significantly, and it's something that is evident throughout the expanded Trek universe is that continuity is a massive factor and cross-referencing is vitally important - kind of unusual when you consider that TNG was probably one of the series less concerned with having ongoing narrative threads unlike its shadowy relation, Deep Space Nine.

Sadly I can't compare it to his earlier Destiny trilogy so I can't say if these are details carried across and that's one of my niggles from early on. There are occasionally bits which are inaccessible to newer readers, namely the crew alterations and also the peppering of references to the "recent" Borg attack. It can make you stop and think about whether you've missed something but for those of you who have followed the author's earlier works I don't think you'll have a problem joining the dots. In truth while it did confuse me it has made me inquisitive over the earlier novels so they might get added to the reading list (after the next two in this series) just to fill in these gaps in my post Nemesis knowledge. Anyway, Mack does a good job of recreating our regulars and introducing his own assorted group of cast members. While Geordi, Picard and the blink-and-you'll-miss-her Doctor Crusher receive accurate portrayals which meant I could concretely envisage them in my mind I do have reservations to some degree with the character of Worf. As probably the most documented Star Trek character of all time I'm not convinced that some of his dialogue works or that some of his character motivations, particularly in reference to personal relationships, are totally believable considering what this Klingon has been through since Farpoint Station. This is not levelled at Worf as a character for the whole of the novel mind, only one or two occasions but they do take a bit to adjust to and seem out of alignment with my understanding of the character.

As the chase for the missing androids continues we are privy to Mack's extensive Trek standing with name drop/guest appearances from Admiral Nechayev, Captain Sisko and Lieutenant Barclay among others (two of whom appear within about the same number of pages) but that's not where this is heading.  What is evident from section one is that this story would have cost an absolute fortune to film what with Starfleet security squads, planet-hopping, cityscapes and even a wink to a lost Generations scene with an orbital skydive are all within a matter of pages and packed tightly into the story. The pace is break-neck at times but progresses in a very logical and easy to follow manner up to its conclusion and the identity of one of the main protagonists is revealed.  Interestingly this is essentially a massive set-up piece for the second and third portions of The Persistence of Memory and while I thought this was a really good intro I never expected what came next.

Now, for those of you who kept reading after I said that there were likely to be spoilers, this is your second and final warning. There are DEFINITELY things here that will ruin your enjoyment of the book so turn away now.

Whether I agree with the revelation that Noonien Soong isn't dead is neither here nor there as sci-fi always requires something of a leap of disbelief and it's actually an essential part of the experience that anything can happen.  If I thought Mack was in his element in the preceding 85 pages then I sorely misjudged him as the fast pace is set aside and we get a marvellous and intimate narrative from the perspective of the cybernetics genius.

So he didn't die at the hands of Lore and we get to follow him across the galaxy, setting up a complex web of businesses to support him for the future as he explores, settles, evades and spies on a number of people and planets. David Mack does a great job here of creating a character we have previously only seen as a dying old man, a hologram and as part of a dream program. I can see the nuances that were part of the character here but I found myself far more fascinated with the story of the doctor himself and the tragic past that is interwoven with his androids and Juliana Tainer; his one true love. 

At first I was a little tepid over where this section was heading - was it going to be a "What Dr Soong Did Next" or was there a bigger point to it all?  Of course there's a point! Moreover I suspect that the introduction (or is that re-introduction?) of another canon character will be a key move that will echo through all three volumes of the Cold Equations trilogy. I ended up thoroughly enjoying this section as Mack provides extensive detail to the doctor's actions while reminding us of how it fits in with events in Data's life through the final seasons of TNG and into the subsequent movie series. Very cleverly done - I even felt that Soong became overly obsessive with his creations as even in death he follows them everywhere, never completely moving on with his life, searching for the answer to keep them alive forever more. For the doctor it's all set up and preparation, back up plans and out-thinking his opponents although ultimately there is one person he can't outwit who manages to do for one of his androids the very thing he has been hoping to master himself. What I didn't get was any real emotional resonance around Soong even as each of his sons is declared dead and then he realises that Juliana too has passed away. 

Now the clever bit through all this is the relationship we are witness to only by proxy that existed between Ira Graves, Soong and Emil Vaslovik. This is key to the book and Mack weaves it within the narrative almost unnoticed and natural while it will evidently become key to everything that is happening in relation to one individual in particular. As viewers we know all three of these characters to some extent but once more Mack has pretty much free reign to develop Vaslovik if only, at this point, from a distance and from one perspective.  Let's not forget that, for a good portion of The Persistence of Memory we are getting one person's viewpoint and subsequently one person's viewpoint.  I'll be interested to see how this has potentially jaded our view of Vaslovik by the time we will no doubt meet him again.

While I won't give anything away about the final section of the book I have to say the conclusion left me a bit uneasy and I wasn't as satisfied as I thought I might have been. It is most certainly action-packed and to a much greater degree than the first section however the scenarios that play out left me a little cold and I felt that David Mack wanted me to have a much more emotional response than I did on a couple of occasions however because these events were not involving more familiar characters it perhaps didn't catch me in the right place. 

There are unanswered questions too; lots of threads left for us to follow into Book Two and this is a good thing. It certainly worked in my case because I wanted to pick up the following volume immediately. In fact, I did because I had it with me on the bus in preparation for finishing Book One!

Mack has done a first class job here and although, as admitted, I've been a bit out of the loop for a few years in terms of Star Trek novels this was a great reintroduction to the series (and I've now got an understanding on the Typhon Pact - cool idea and more in Book Two please!). The difference in pace over the course of nearly 400 pages works well to balance the character and temperament of Soong against the action and adventure that he ultimately finds himself in during 2384. While not a central character at the beginning, Soong is very much the cornerstone of the final section and the showdown which takes place in a most unusual setting. His legacy appears to be the thing that will drive the narrative in Book Two, Silent Weapons, and probably beyond that into the final novel too.

I must congratulate the author here once more referencing the extensive TNG back catalogue while still making many of the characters, situations and settings very much his own at the same time - which no doubt will add weight to the sequel, Silent Weapons. I can only hope that the remaining two books live up to the hype and the buildup that David Mack has moulded here. It's controversially something of a new beginning that could well ignite a good round of heated debate amongst TNG fans. I never thought you could play with canon as much as is here and get away with it however the author does and to some extent, begrudgingly, I must admit it makes The Persistence of Memory a damn good page turner.

Good work there, Mr Mack; let's see what Book 2 has to offer.

Star Trek: The Next Generation "Cold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of Memory" is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99. ISBN 9781451650723

You can read my review for Book Two: Silent Weapons now!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Thirty Seconds Into Darkness

I've even managed to avoid using any headers relating "Superbowl" to the film title (after a revision) because it's already been cliched to death and that's not what we're about here!!!

Accompanied by a sudden power outage at the beginning of the second half, it was (eventually) a great night not just for Baltimore Ravens fans but cinema lovers too with a plethora of new trailers wedged among some of the most expensive advert slots of the year.

Of course we're here to look at particular 30 seconds worth of $2.5 million and for those of you who haven't seen it yet,  here's a nice little link to the latest teaser for Star Trek Into Darkness  which some fans will now get to see TWO DAYS early at special IMAX 3D screenings!

It's not the longest piece of footage we could have wished for but it does give us a couple of juicy new lines of dialogue and some stunning new images of the Enterprise crumbling as it falls to Earth. As a flagship this baby sure does get one helluva kicking whatever reality it exists in. Whatever the case, it's definitely a mouth-watering lure for the big event.
"You think your world is safe. It is not."
As a trailer this works to an absolute tee as we once more see Harrison in the cell, a new shot of an apparent bomb attack on San Francisco (which would suggest the reason for the recall of the Enterprise to Earth), Spock alone on the fire/volcanic world, with Uhura and finally jumping off that really tall building ...again.  
"Who the hell are you?"
We have more familiar images of Kirk and Harrison "facing off"; masses of trademark lens flare and then Harrison getting bad-ass with his big gun. Before you worry that there's "more of the same" but in a shorter time span than the first trailer, we get some additional footage which suggests that the Enterprise crash is in some way responsible for the destruction we saw in the original 2 minute super-teaser a few weeks back. Dispersed between the last 15 seconds of the montage we also get an ominous warning backed by that haunting Inception/The Dark Knight Rises soundtrack (again) with a wonderful retro addition. Did you hear it? Yep - the bleepy, bleepy sound from the viewscreen pacing lights!  Wonderful touch there!

To be fair, it's well worth watching just for the snippets of the ship more than anything else!
"I am better..."
So the trailer has sent theories into orbit with its new dialogue putting it even more firmly into a lot of minds that Harrison is Khan - but he's in a Starfleet uniform? Well, if you recall the first reboot film, Kirk spent a good deal of time in black because he wasn't officially part of the crew; he was just an "observer" which would answer those who say he's a renegade Starfleet commander (ie Garth of Izar) but then that doesn't rule him out as Khan or maybe...Flint? As we know, he's a pretty old guy by the time of The Original Series and lived a load of lifetimes. One to consider fellow Trek fans. Sadly now it's a virtual certainty we can rule out Gary Mitchell. Sorry, sir, you're off the list.
"At what?"
How about this for another theory to throw into the mix - what if we haven't seen Khan yet? Could Harrison really be Harrison; one of his minions preparing the way for the Super Baddie who we get to see later in the film? One thing we seem to be forgetting is that no-stranger-to-Star Trek Peter Weller hasn't turned up in one bit of footage yet. Is JJ performing one of the greatest slight of hand tricks ever, making us all examine Harrison and get hooked onto this protagonist to then pull the rug and reveal that he's just the cover for something even more impressive? I would add the fact that we have only seen a TEASER poster so far and that makes me think that there might be another, more revealing one to come before release date. After all, Trek films of the past have always had a teaser poster (as per the background of this blog) so this one might not be an exception. 
So here we are again - another trailer making us think and counter think about the possibilities which will either prove a ton of people right since the beginning that it's Khan or give a lot of conspiracy theorists the smug satisfaction that they weren't sucker-punched and drawn into the Abrams web of secrecy. Hilariously from the producers' point of view they must be loving it - they don't provide much new material and the whole of Trekdom is going to Red Alert. I applaud thee, Mr Abrams. Let's hope the endgame matches the opening moves.
"...Shall we begin?"
While we're at it let's not forget that the super, wonderful, amazing, brilliant mobile app I discussed a few weeks back has been released and does everything you would want; trailers, scanning things for extra special stuff and all linked into the new film. Rank up, get rewards and enjoy! Stunning!!! Shame it's not available in the UK so we'll have to take our US and Canadian friends' word for it I'm afraid. Epic fail there, JJ (and associates) - should've been a global opportunity to sell the film to the fans by giving them some treats into the palms of their hands on Android and iPhone. Fingers crossed that there's something to ease our Trek withdrawls as we get nearer to May - and what's going on with Are you the 1701? Who'd forgotten that existed?