Sunday, 29 October 2017

Elba's Pool Car: The Official Starships Collection Special Eight

Another one of those late arrivals to SKoST Towers is the Altamid Swarm Ship from that rather good motion picture Star Trek Beyond.

Bloody shame then that the model of the enemy craft is such a shower of s**t. Honestly, I think this is the worst special edition that's come out of the Eaglemoss catalogue. I might even suggest a large scale Malon Freighter over this one.

Delivered in its standard special box with polystyrene packaging, the Swarm Ship feels like a bit of a lump when you pull it out. There are a lot of spindles striking out from the central hull but these extremities don’t manage to distract from the rather blocky and dull craft that this is.

Take the central section and let’s work outwards from there. The two shades of brown that act as the paint scheme are very blocky and there’s a striking line between each of the colours right over the hull rather than blending into each other organically. 

The mound itself is fairly sound and steady with average detailing of the panel lines but there’s just something here that hasn’t translated from the screen to the model. It’s almost the same result that we saw from the regular issue Species 8472 bioship and on an even larger scale it’s painfully evident that Eaglemoss can do metalwork but not stray too far outside that remit. The cockpit windows in the centre of the body are all blacked out to avoid having to detail the interior and that’s just something we have to live with here although it does mean the pilot area blends in with the rest of the hull making it almost unnoticeable.

The paintwork is just far too regular and inorganic which doesn’t help that golden final effect. Texturally it doesn’t look right even though the angles and markings are probably perfect and taken from the movie reference material. 

The definition of the claw-like nose section is pretty good with all the separation points and mechanics signposted but that blotchy brown colour scheme seems to cheapen the result. Much like this craft attacking the Enterprise, there’s nothing subtle about the lines of the Swarm Ship especially at the pointy end.

Moving slightly rearward there has been an attempt to form the mechanics around the wings and how they are supposed to fold into the craft. The larger scale works both for and against here allowing Eaglemoss the chance to be more creative visually around the workings but then are inversely beaten back by the apparent restrictions of their own manufacturing plant/processes/costs which mean that they can’t go into too much detail in this joint. Don’t get me wrong, you can see the vision here and some of the cut lines that mark out the sections but it feels incomplete. 

The wings feature that distinct and defined sand and brown colour scheme again. I actually love the form of the two side pods and have to say that there’s no structural rigidity lost here. The tips are clean and fresh with no evidence of moulding which can be tricky when you get to pointy parts. Fortunately that is one thing Eaglemoss have been strong on and with a ship such as this where the protrusions from the main hull make it so distinctive, a sloppy finish would have been awfully obvious. Great to see that there’s strong panel definition right up to the tips as well which can’t have been the easiest thing to produce. 

My next challenge with the Swarm Ship comes with the rear prongs. Remember the Xindi Reptilian Warship and those slender fins to the rear? Yep? Well there’s the same flexibility here which just can’t be avoided. Seeing how this kind of work is replicated absolutely backs up the conclusion that the Narada from the 2009 movie is going to be a series impossibility due to the high fin count. The prongs/fins don't feel stupidly bendy and the front ones are thicker - just watch those ones to the back.

Over on the belly there’s not much more to say than we’ve already noted about the topside of the Swarm Ship purely because the colour scheme is identical. The patterning is different on the underside of the wings with a sharper and more complex geometric pattern contrasting against the dark brown slab of the main fuselage. The detail shows the nose mechanics once more and you can barely make out the join lines between the upper metal hull and the partial lower plastic parts.

Stand positioning is a secure grip to the rear of the main hull with the Swarm Ship's nose slightly elevated. No movement so this one should stay in one piece and it does make for a good display pose however even that can't make up for its shortcomings.

Apart from two pages giving brief background on the Beyond ship, the 16 page magazine is filled out with Designing the Swarm Ship. There's a lot going on in here so it's a good read because these little craft went through a lot of changes before they made it onto the screen. In fact more than you might first expect due to a significant part of the story which required them to do something very specific. Here's a point to note - the magazine contains a ton of fantastic production images, sketches, storyboards and ideas about how these ships should be developed but there's not a single shot of the ships from the movie - not one - so comparing between the model and the "real thing" is a little harder this month. What you do notice even between the mag pics and the model is the wear and tear evident on the CG photos that just doesn't come out at all on the diecast craft. While the Franklin benefitted from some dirtying up, the Swarm Ship is devoid of such finishing but really would have worked given a bit of aging - it might have taken the edge off the paint scheme,

Look, it’s not that I don’t like the ship nor the model but I wanted more from this one and it doesn’t deliver because it feels like a lump of plastic. There’s nothing exciting about it, nothing that draws you to examine it again and again as the best of the collection, beit specials or regular issues, manages to do regularly. The film might have been a great experience but this model leaves something to be desired and probably sits more than comfortably in my bottom five of all time. 

How did you get on with the Altamid Swarm Ship? Waste of plastic? Nice space filler? Decent model?

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Thursday, 26 October 2017

Save Our Sarek: S1 E6 Lethe

Opening with a stunning new visual of Vulcan, Lethe chooses to take Discovery on its most Star Trek path so far in a story that delivers character moments and reveals in spades and continues to evolve the season long arc at the same time.

The basics are this - Sarek is off on a Secret Mission (which we discover later is to act as a negotiator between the Federation and the Klingons) but ends up the target of a Vulcan extremist sect who attempt to assassinate the ambassador.

While their attempt, of course, fails Sarek is left stranded in the nebula and only his link to Burnham could save him. This begins the rescue mission which forms the majority of the episode. 

Lorca’s faith in Burnham here is incredible. While everyone else is pushing her to the wayside or warning the captain not to utilise her because of her mutinous past, he fully embraces her differences and sees the opportunity to exploit in her abilities. At his core Lorca is a user, surrounding himself with useful people who can do extraordinary things that could well turn the tide of the war. 

Burnham herself is absolutely committed to finding Sarek and the Trek-dump of references to canon material is near overwhelming from Spock to the Enterprise to a background shot of a ship identical to the T’Plana Hath right to the inclusion of Amanda it’s all here. 

James Frain does seem to be a little stilted as Sarek and while he carries off the part OK, the American accent just doesn’t carry well and at times seems off. He certainly plays out the emotionless Vulcan effectively but I did find his performance here a lot more wanting than the brief encounter we had in The Vulcan Hello. While the search itself is fairly rudimentary, the connection between Sarek and Burnham on the mental plain is incredibly insightful. Opening up a lot more background into the path that Burnham’s life has taken it reveals just why Sarek might have been so opposed to Spock attending Starfleet and not entering the Vulcan Expeditionary Force. It actually develops the character of Sarek perhaps more fully than ever before since we really do get to see the inner psyche of the ambassador more than ever in the classic movies or even in more open moments from The Next Generation. 

The exterior work for the graduation scenes is very welcome and a refreshing change from the claustrophobia of Starfleet and Klingon ships out in space plus we get some very cool visuals of Vulcan. 

In turn of opening up Sarek’s mind we also get to invest more in Burnham and how she ticks and exactly how the relationship between her and her adoptive parents is balanced. Mira Kirshner doesn’t have a vast role as Amanda acting only to fight Michael’s corner when it comes to her apparent rejection from the Expeditionary Force. Even here in Discovery it seems that the distrust for Humans that existed in Enterprise is still alive and kicking in some parts of the Vulcan people. Great callback and used effectively for the purposes of the characters here.

Also returning for Lethe is Lieutenant Ash Tyler. After a session of Klingon zapping Laser Quest with Lorca he’s quickly set up as Landry’s successor as Chief of Security being a superb pilot, brutal fighter and outshooting Lorca on the simulator (erm...holodeck....?).

There’s a lot of emphasis on Tyler’s background and Lorca making sure of who he is before he offers the lieutenant the job. Tyler also makes a fair impact on Burnham and Tilly here although there seems to be a much stronger connection between the mutineer and the ex-POW by the end of the episode. These three form quite an interesting new Trek trio aboard the shuttle searching for Sarek.  

While we have the Burnham squad out hunting for the ambassador the second story here turns to Lorca and his very personal relationship with Admiral Cornwell. To begin with Lorca sticks the bird to Vulcan Admiral T’Rel and decides to go on the rescue mission with Starfleet’s most advanced ship and then gets cornered by Cornwell who dresses him down in more ways than one.

Clearly there’s a long term something underpinning these two but why doesn’t Lorca remember their trip together? Is this an Easter Egg? Anyways, it’s soon a lot clearer to the Admiral that Lorca isn’t firing on all thrusters to coin a phrase from Doctor McCoy and she goes all rank-pulling with the possibility that the unstable Lorca would lose his ship.

This was a key moment in the show so far not just the episode because of how Cornwell takes Lorca right to the edge and dangles everything he values over the precipice. There’s a crack in the captain at this instant and he’s portrayed at his most vulnerable - maybe even one of the most vulnerable moments we’ve ever seen a captain face on board their own ship but Gabriel Lorca then puts even Sisko to shame.

You could debate that Lorca sees Cornwell as the perfect replacement for Sarek on his Klingon mission but in no uncertain term I’m 100% convinced he knows it’s a trap and what could happen. The calculated nature of Lorca’s decisions and suggestions is chilling. He willingly gives up a former lover and Starfleet admiral just to cover his own posterior. Full credit to him it’s genius but in the same breath a terribly dark chapter in proceedings. 

Handing Cornwell over to the Klingons keeps this episode locked into the bigger arc while providing a more wide-reaching story. The implications are massive whether she lives or dies but this all plays back into the fact that Lorca will go all out to win the war; this guy has no boundaries to get the job done.

Lorca's actions here actually tend to overshadow the main Burnham plot and information which really does readjust your view on The Original Series. His choice of carrying the phaser trouser-tucked should things have gone south with Saru coupled with his driven desire to remain as captain of the Discovery all point to darker times ahead for this man. The power of the final couple of scenes is stunning even if you do have this inkling that it's not all going to work out for Cornwell in her meeting with the Klingons.

Easily Lethe deals with the characters of Discovery more effectively than any of the others to date. There’s minimal external CG work here with the full concentration of the episode being on people and their interactions. While I’ve not mentioned Cadet Tilly in too much detail she was again a great part of the episode bringing in much needed vibrancy and optimism in  a place where not much exists at the moment. Her apparent role as Burnham's sidekick is becoming very noticable as she starts to forge her career in Starfleet and definitely has more of a focus and direction by the close.

It's a damn cool episode that relies on its people rather than "groovy" effects and action to make its mark. If this is the kind of quality we're going to get then this series will be around for a while - well, we know we're getting a second season at the least. 

This episode will probably offend some fans of The Original Series because it "fills in" some blanks and changes the nature of an established relationship but we have to move on and accept that Disvovery is going to go in new ways and explore things differently. Surely that's part of what Star Trek and good Star Trek at that is all about.

Is Lethe the best that Discovery will offer?

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Thursday, 19 October 2017

Stirring the Mudd: S1 E5 Choose Your Pain

The war stretches onwards with Discovery seeming as Starfleet’s best and most secretive weapon since the linking of the tardigrade lifeform to the spore drive.

Thing is it’s not all going to plan and the macrocosmic lifeform is getting weaker with each jump raising concerns for Burnham who was the one to initially work out that the hook up might be the answer to their engineering woes.

Just to add to the stress, Lorca manages to get himself captured by L’Rell onboard a Klingon D-7 battlecruiser on his return from a meeting with Starfleet admiralty. While on the one hand this does give us the unfortunate chance to be introduced to a very duplicitous interpretation of Harcourt Fenton Mudd it also finally adds Shazad Latif to the cast as Lieutenant Ash Tyler, formerly of the USS Yeager which was lost at the battle of the binary stars. 

Rainn Wilson is excellent in the role of Mudd taking him away from the purely comedic turn of Roger C Carmel and twisting it into something darker and unnerving at times with a ton of set up to make sure we want him back and by god I do.  His treatment of his cellmates and contempt for Starfleet is seething under the surface and I bought the character and the backstory they expanded on slightly. Nice nod to Stella who we last saw in android form in I, Mudd some 49 years ago. 

How does this all link? Well, Saru is quick to demand the need for multiple spore drive jumps to search and rescue Lorca before he blurts out all of Starfleet’s secrets. This places this week’s big conflict into place where in Burnham, backed my Doctor Culber (Wilson Cruz) finds herself up against the acting captain to protect the very creature she found a use for.  There is at times a lot of plot exposition to refresh viewers from the previous episode around the workings of the spore drive/tardigrade yet the story here is engrossing because of the difference of opinion between the characters. The ultimate resolution is satisfying and places Stamets in a whole new light quite removed from the seemingly eternally disgruntled Starfleet conscript. 

The relationship between Culber and Stamets is handled excellently with their disagreements on duty nicely mirrored against their personal partnership. Not heavy handed, subtle and I think it will work wonders in later episodes of the two continue to have differing viewpoints. 

This second story also contains a third strand with Saru reviewing his own performance in command of the Discovery during Lorca’s absence. Nice little homage as he compares his stint against the likes of Pike, Matt Decker, Robert April, Archer and Philippa Georgiou while having to deal with what he terms as a destructive element. Perhaps more of an additional strand to the rescue attempt this line does provide some more character development for the Kelpien first officer. He has self-doubt and still sees Burnham as a massive personal problem especially at a time of crisis. Their relationship has totally spin round since The Vulcan Hello with Burnham using him as a guinea pig for her ideas last week and this week Saru blatantly going in opposition to everything she said as he asserted himself into the temporary captaincy. Saru isn't one to hold back on the cutting remarks and again uses Georgiou's death as a weapon knowing full well the impact it will have on Burnham.

However, for me this was a Lorca-heavy episode right from the pre-titles. We learnt a lot about the captain’s previous command and how he ended that plus we get to see him in an out of familiar circumstances leadership position. His persona here is much less stern than usual as he seeks a way to survive in the Klingon prison cell. His actions in leaving Mudd behind are - WILL - come round to bite him on the ass in a future episode but considering the dishonourable intentions of the trader, I don’t think we blame him. 

L’Rell doesn’t have a vast amount of development here aside from the news that she can speak Federation Standard while she tortures Lorca and not very much on that count it seems. Is this all set up for something? What’s going on behind the scenes and where’s Voq (and yes, I have seen the internet theories)? She is positioning herself as the central Klingon character moving into the mid third of the season but we still have others to meet beyond her, Voq and Kol. Surely the power play is going to expand more before it is wrapped up? 

Choose Your Pain - a direct reference to the choice the Klingon guards give their prisoners in either taking a beating or dishing it out to a cellmate - is the darkest moment of the series so far but the most enlightening when it comes to the main cast. It is also extremely violent as Star Trek episodes go with an officer knifed by Klingons in the pre-titles, Lorca tortured and a brutal fight to escape all locked inside 48 minutes of story. Nor does the show feint away from showing the violence and it only goes to show how our acceptance of this level of graphic content has become almost blase.

For one we finally have a complete roster with the  rescue of Lieutenant Tyler and secondly it offers something more than just 45 minutes of Burnham with the others sprinkled around for variety. Isaacs is refreshing and compelling on screen in every scene and I utterly believed in his character whether undergoing torture at the hands of L’Rell, confronting Mudd or saving Tyler from the Klingons and making Good their escape. On that note, anyone else think that was a little easy?

Couple of points that didn’t sit too well for me though. Those Klingon dragonfly-like ships were a little too Lexx for my liking and looked utterly out of place on Star Trek. I’d have also chosen a different designation for the Klingon cruiser when it’s announced at the start because that AIN'T a D7. Did these elements affect the telling of the story - no, but for purists I think there might be some nervous twitches that the stuff created in CG might be stepping a little too far from the realm of what might be considered canon. 

Then there’s the f-bomb that was dropped. Wow. Swearing in Star Trek. Do I mind? Not really. Was it a surprise? Yes. It is quite ‘un-Trek’ if you will and did few a tad out of place but I’m not writing my whole review around one throwaway line of dialogue because there’s more to Choose Your Pain than the word f**k (x2). 

I am loving the returning bridge crew on Discovery. While they don’t have a ton of lines or a lot of screen time in total the continuity is wonderful and faithful to the franchise yet there’s that distinct difference that with this series the bridge isn’t the main focal point of the show for action and nor are that set of officers. For me that’s one of the biggest differences to get used to although Discovery really is opening up a lot of threads and arcs that we still have 10 episodes left to tie up. 

Overall a sure-footed effort here that I really enjoyed from start to finish. Good opportunity to explore Lorca and probably make a few fans question whether or not he is a Mirror Universe character. Oh - and on that note, what about those last few seconds - anyone else thinking that the Mirror Universe was being hinted at there? What effect has injecting himself with tardigrade genetic material done to Stamets? Is he now connected to the micelial network? Duh duh duuuuuuuh....!

How did Choose Your Pain rate in your books?

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Friday, 13 October 2017

Roman Connections: The Official Starships Collection Bonus Edition USS Aventine

Just as we’ve got over the excitement and loveliness of the USS Titan, Eaglemoss land us with a second starship from the Star Trek Expanded Universe with the stunning, slimline USS Aventine.

Purely a creation of the literary universe both this and the Titan have enchanted collectors in the last month or so and although she’s one of the smallest creations to come out of the fabled blue box and plastic packaging, NCC-82602 is a killer. 

One thing that’s apparent from the off is the size of this replica. She’s not much different in weight and size to the equally slim-lined Sovereign Class but while that was a cluttered mess of detail to some extent, the Vesta Class USS Aventine is a much more planned and less frantic result. 

As always, let’s start at the top and work our way aft and down. 

For once it’s a Federation starship that avoids the standard two tone grey colour palette instead opting for three main colours. There’s a duck egg blue azteced in with a light blue grey for the majority of the two hulls and engines yet there is a rather striking black arrow that cuts a swathe down the centre of the saucer. It’s a dynamic paint scheme that isn’t evident on any other Federation starship and it makes a bold statement but isn’t out of place. What makes a difference to the overloaded Sovereign Class is that the aztec colour shades don’t contrast sharply and the introduction of the third only helps to alleviate the number of colour changes in such a small space. 

Similar to Voyager in form and using tech that the smaller ship brought back from the Delta Quadrant, the Aventine is named after one of the seven hills surrounding Rome. It has that distinctive forward sensor platform at the front of the primary hull (like Voyager) that sits just in front of the tiny ship registry. Take a close look at that upper hull surface though and you’ll be amazed at the detail - teeny recessed lifeboat hatches, pinpoint painted phaser strips. There is just so much colour and surface variation just on the saucer and that’s not even mentioning that Eaglemoss have managed to include a lot of almost invisible white window markings around those phaser strips and towards the back of the upper hull.

At the rear there’s a similar landing strip for shuttles as to the one on the back of the USS Titan. The colour scheme of the two blue shades covers everything to this point with the strip markings cutting a clear line on the hull.  What impressed me here is that Eaglemoss have really finely detailed the Aventine and it looks glorious. The initial shock of the size is easily overcome with the attention this craft has received in its final form. 

The secondary hull benefits from the 24th Century Starfleet policy of ‘no neck’ becoming more of a rear extension to the saucer. Unusually its the belly of the ship and not the upper saucer that's metal and that might be the main reason it looks so much better up top; the plastic affords much more flexibility when it comes to detail.

That underside is just as meticulously detailed with the full aztec print covering the hull and only broken by another black central section.  Now if you refer to the magazine, the different colours reflect different densities of armour so you have to assume that the black sections around the bridge and you would suspect the quantum slipstream drive/engineering must be the most dense. Close inspection does show these dark sections to be around critical systems.

As with the top, there are the RCS thrusters in yellow marked around the saucer plus more lifeboat detail and very tiny ship registry. The main and only downside to this stunner is the stupid blot painted main deflector. Its just a blob of blue and really stands out as an infuriating touch when you take into consideration the larger picture and the stunning paintwork that has been afforded to the rest of the Aventine. It also omits the metalwork section which fits across the bottom and spears to the centre; it's just a damn ugly blemish for such a great ship. For note the deflector seems to be a plastic insert into the lower metal hull which is a very unusual Eaglemoss feature.

The precision on the rest of the paintwork, deflector aside continues out onto the warp engine pylons which bear not only the fine lines of dorsal and ventral phaser banks but also some very well finished impulse engines. The finish on the Aventine really is incredible given the size and to have phaser banks, engines and lifeboat hatches marked out this well is unprecedented. The windows are aligned and out on the warp engines themselves the venting panels are absolutely identical on both. The side grilles are missing completely but with her being so small it really would be nothing more than a fine line which, if you wanted, you could fill out with a felt tip pen and a steady hand!

Stand fitting for her is a comfy grip around the saucer impulse engines with a slight tilt forward to glide her into place. It's a standard amidships pose for the Aventine but she looks mighty fine even with such a thin profile - just be sure to put her towards the front of your shelves or you might lose her...!

In the Aventine magazine we have three sections all focused on this literary starship. First and foremost and very useful for those collectors who don't dive into the novels, is a section devoted to the "in universe" life of the ship from its development as a testbed for quantum slipstream tech as well as experiemental weapons and that thickened armour. Following on from this extremely short section are six pages dedicated to digital artist Mark Rademaker and the work that he put in to develop the Aventine after he'd produced the USS Spirit for the Ships of the Line calendar series. 

Mark had his work cut out to produce a ship that - as we see here - is the same size as the Enterprise-E and was required for the cover art of the Destiny book series. This is a great and in depth piece tracing the origins of the Aventine from concept through sketch and into the digital realm, even noting that there might have been some further changes had Mark known it would be around as long as it has been!

Finally we have Imagining the USS Aventine which tells the story of the Vesta Class starship from the perspective of the man who introduced it, David Mack. Originally just intended as a ship for the Destiny trilogy, the Aventine turned out to be a popular addition to Star Trek and is still speeding around the galaxy nearly a decade later. 

The USS Aventine is a fantastic model and the magazine with it is just as impressive, adding a lot of very useful background and a lot of information that you just won't see in the Encyclopedia - in fact you're only ever going to get a glimpse on Memory Beta. Very, very happy with this one and I'm sticking it right next to the Enterprise-E as a fine example of how Eaglemoss can produce a quality starship on a very small scale. Top marks (but make it a bit bigger next time huh?!).

Fan of the Aventine? Which other starships from the expanded universe should make the bonus editions?

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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Bring Your Pet to Work Day: S1 E4 The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

It’s Burnham’s first day back in the uniform following Lorca’s ‘request’ for her to join the crew of Discovery.

As first days go it’s probably run of the mill when it comes to Starfleet, dealing with Saru whose nose is well and truly out of joint since he expected her to be on a shuttle to prison, helping to fight off Klingons oh - and there’s the small matter of That Creature in Lorca’s menagerie.

As it turns out it’s not really a menagerie but more his War Study containing brutal weapons from numerous cultures as he studies the core of warfare. Is it correct to call him a warmonger? No, because at the centre of it Lorca is attempting to END the war rather than make it last. His work might take him to the very extremes of what might be acceptable but in his heart this guy is just looking for a way to restore the peace - or at least that’s what it looks like four episodes in. 

Certainly here we get to see Lorca as the military commander whether it’s running a battle drill or taking the Discovery into atmospheric combat to save a Federation mining colony and it’s evident where his real skills lie. Discovery is perhaps not the ideal warship for him when it comes to a bristling arsenal and instead he has a crew of scientists however he’s working with what he has and some of that is going to come in very handy. His choice to play the transmissions from Corvan II is a controversial moment in the episode. Very out of kilter with anything Star Trek before but keeping with the character of Lorca. He wants to elicit some sort of emotional reaction from his crew, to hone these scientists into the fighting machine they may well have to become due to the rather handy abilities of the Discovery. Cruel to be kind? Absolutely because a softer touch could see everyone dead.

It’s hard to review this episode and not discuss the spore drive. Somehow for fifty years of Star Trek this technology has remained totally hidden, classified and buried out of reach of us mere mortal fans (!) but it’s one heck of a plot device and makes the show very unique. Pretty much the Discovery can be anywhere it needs to be in a blink of an eye thanks to the wonders of Lieutenant Stamets work and also Burnham’s logical reasoning which brings in a familiar face from episode three (I say face but...). 

The effect of the Discovery going to Black Alert (stealth running) followed by the activation of the drive is beautiful. As Stamets notes, the Discovery is built around the spore drive technology and it’s evident in the very fabric of the ship with the rotating saucer discs and the space folding maelstrom. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the pilots from Dune when you think about just what’s going on here. I absolutely expect fans of the franchise to have issues with the spore drive but it makes the show even more interesting and exciting. It’s something different and unique to this piece of the universe and while it’s still in the experimental stages it’s surely going to be used more and more advantageously.

Stamets continues to be brilliantly watchable in his opposition and uncomfortable relationship with Lorca. The dislike for each other is ever more evident while they are abiding each other as part of their work. He is much more the engineer in this episode and whereas Scotty would have jumped to solve every problem, Stamets weighs in with a much more negative reaction to anything Lorca throws his way. Ironically the two are equally cold and devoid of outward emotional displays making them, here, more alike than they might want to admit. 

The story to defend the Corvan II mining colony merely acts as the vehicle to demonstrate the wonders of the spore drive and Burnham’s ability to see past the tardigrade’s vicious behaviour to its more peaceful nature and the way in which it forms a symbiotic relationship with the engine powering spores. 

Further to that there’s the parallel Klingon plot. Having spent six months drifting near the binary stars morale as well as food supplies are running horribly low. With T’Kuvma dead and Georgiou apparently the main course, we are left with Voq, a Klingon of no name and the Torchbearer/heir apparent and L’Rell, House battle commander, left in charge. 

As the pair debate whether raiding the abandoned USS Shenzhou is against what T’Kuvma would have wished, we see Kol from House Kor making his moves in the background. Subtle at first but eventually with devastating consequences. As T’Kuvma’s apparent successor, Vow remains highly optimistic that the answer will just appear and ensure that his people Remain Klingon. Problem is that that is easier than it seems. His partnership with L’Rell looks to be turning into something else with her mentoring and advising the younger, outcast Klingon while at the same time there may well be a more personal partnership coming to fruition. 

As we leave the pair its fairly cemented that they will be back to try and regain control of the 25th House which Kor seems to have bribed to follow his lead. Seeing the Shenzhou again is fantastic. It seems its all CG but we have the bridge and Georgiou’s ready room frozen in time plus there's a stunning shot of the adrift Walker Class ship with all its lifeboat doors open, left to the vacuum of space. Have to say I'm loving how these story parts are tying back together, even to the extent that Michelle Yeoh gets a special guest star credit and to the final moments of the episode and Burnham’s begrudging acceptance of her former captain’s last will and testament which will surely have made uncomfortable listening for the disgraced Starfleet officer.

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry doesn't answer a lot of the bigger picture however it manages to expand on the learnings and introductions from Context is for Kings. One noticeable difference storywise is that Discovery is going for a bigger epic feel and as yet avoiding telling stories about the individual characters much outside of Michael Burnham. In the ‘old days’ we might have had a Picard episode or a Bashir story but now with Discovery there seems to be a simple format akin to the first couple of series of The Next Generation and is more situational. The war is clearly the backdrop and here we begin to see Burnham caught up in matters that she would rather leave behind. Apart from the unsurprisingly short-lived Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma), does anyone on this ship actually like Lorca? Is he turning into the most disliked character in-universe? I'd take a punt that the answer to that is a resolute yes. I think he's great!

This is a solid episode that manages to balanced two narratives with both sharing the limelight. The Discovery’s story does end with a slightly cheesy line from a saved child and its very out of flavour for the show but ill try to ignore it - with difficulty. The Klingon story shows immense potential and how this will eventually dovetail into the main plot can only be cataclysmic by the end of the season. I think, L’Rell is one to one and Mary Chieffo has an excellent character to work with who is using all the skills available to her to manipulate her position seemingly as you would expect from someone who was partially brought up in House Mokai.

The lack of individual character development to allow greater plot exposure and focus on Burnham might be Discovery’s failing when there are such wonderful characters as Airiam (Sarah Mitich), Saru and Lorca on the ship who at times are genuinely confined to background roles. Visually a solid and perfect addition to Star Trek however the script really needs to embrace its people more than the CG monsters in the cupboard to truly keep me satisfied.

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What were your thoughts on episode four?

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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Black Alert: S1 E3 Context is for Kings

When is a pilot not a pilot?

When it’s episode three of Star Trek Discovery and we’re only just getting aboard the synonymous ship.

Taking up the story six months after the events of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, Context is the King finds Michael Burnham clapped in irons and on a prison transfer. A cosmic storm later and she and her fellow prisoners are stepping out onto the deck of the USS Discovery with its array of weirdness, secrecy and diverse personalities on view right from the second the bay doors open and Commander Landry walks in.

Context is for Kings feels like we’ve been watching this story evolve. The transition from Shenzhou to Discovery feels natural although the actual transfer of Burnham might have been intentional. 

This episode is just as dark as the previous two and begins to take the series in very different direction to anything you have experienced with Star Trek before. The atmosphere in this show tingles with energy and intrigue from the first moment but there’s also a palpable sense that this is fundamentally NOT the Star Trek of Picard, Janeway or even Sisko in his more brooding episodes. As with The Vulcan Hello, this feels real and the interactions between the characters feels real because they are allowed to experience conflict.

That allowance creates both the most opportunity and yet goes drastically against Gene Roddenberry, almost as much as Burnham ZIPPING up her jacket. Oh my, you can hear the keyboards tapping away now.

Discovery, while stated in observation, is a new ship, there’s already a lot going on and very little is explained here. We see guards around the ship armed with phaser rifles and bearing a black Starfleet badge as well as delving into the mysteries of the engineering labs and their work on spore-type life.

Context is for Kings is almost devoid of Klingon intrusion as an opposite from the previous days, focusing purely on this new crew and starship. 

Cadet Sylvia Tilly is the big kid in all of us. The wide eyed excited newbie out there for the first time. Probably a huge allegory for the viewer experiencing Discovery but such a great inclusion and one that does add a lighter touch to a show that at times is very dark. Her phobias aside, Tilly is looking to Burnham as a chance to further her knowledge and career while everyone else has cast her aside. These two are a classic Trek odd pairing with one being the emotional hub and Burnham the voice of logic and calm. Might Tilly's character also betray a hint of autistic tendancies? Could this be the first role in Star Trek to address those kinds of personal challenges? 

Then there’s Saru. The character has come on in new ways during the six months since the battle at the binary stars with the Kelpien moving to command and being Lorca’s first officer. His relationship with Burnham is nothing short of uncomfortable and even here the conflict we have never seen in the franchise before is bubbling at the surface. His comment about protecting his captain is sharply barbed almost putting his former superior officer in her place yet he is more than willing to speak in her defence when asked by his new captain if she is suitable for an away mission. I think this is a survival instinct that Saru knows which side to fall on to stay safe. 

Everybody seems to treat Burnham with some sort of disdain in Context is for Kings because of her dubious recent past and it’s both out of place and refreshing for Star Trek to do this. It feels more honest and respectful to the viewer that life isn’t always as perfect and utopian as The Next Generation might have portrayed it for example. In fact the last time I recall some kind of human/human conflict or edge in that show was when the Starfleet officer who defected to the Romulans returned in Face of the Enemy

Lieutenant Paul Stamets carries a lot of that negativity around. While Saru is slightly aloof, Stamets is a more abrasive officer who demands performance and the best from his team. He clearly doesn’t take any s**t and nor is he afraid to stand his ground when he (pretty much always) thinks he’s right. His relationship with the captain is strained for very good reason and will continue to be due to his history with Starfleet.

Stamets doesn’t hold back either and while it’s not a case of his mouth overrunning his mind as with Tilly, he seems almost vindictive or bullish in his approach to Burnham in particular.  The key to all this seems to be that Stamets and Straal (he’s on the USS Glenn were co-opted into ‘your (Lorca’s) Starfleet” to divert their research for the war effort which suggests he’s not originally one of the fold. It also worryingly paints Starfleet in a darker light than ever before and lays a strong case for the show that it is promoting the organisation as a rather shady military group rather than one more dedicated to seeking out new life.

Then there’s Commander Landry played by Rekha Sharma. Sadly only guest cast which doesn’t bode too well for her survival(!) but I could be wrong. She makes Worf look like a pussy cat within seconds, even allowing a fight to break out in the mess hall and later appearing to have darker loyalties to Lorca than might be healthy. Landry might not get a lot of screen time but her character traits are very well defined by the time she is on screen. 

Finally let’s talk about Lorca. Jeez, this guy is like no other Star Trek captain ever and I don’t just mean because he’s not the main character in the show or because of his fondness for fortune cookies. Lorca starts off mysterious, travels into authoritarian realms, steps by warlord and then surprises us all at the end with a few twists to the plot. Lorca is portrayed as the stern disciplinarian in the way he has a standing desk in his ready room to the way in which he heads off opposition head on in every situation. 

He's a military commander running a science vessel in a war so you know there's going to be more in the background. a taste of Encounter at Farpoint Picard. There'll never be any kids on this guy's starship. Certainly Lorca is the most multifacted captain in Star Trek history although by the end of the episode you might be questioning your own opinions of him too.In some respects you can see echoes of the In the Pale Moonlight Sisko breaking through with all that under the radar activity but Ben doesn't give you the chill this guy does.

Context is for Kings is a bit of a sleeper start but by the closing credits you know full well that everything you've seen is going to be significant be it the amazing spore drive through to Landry's unquestioning loyalty or Lorca's menagerie. Anyone else wondering what the significance of the lone - and you would hope - neutered Tribble might be? 

We don't get to see a ton of shots of the new USS Discovery although I feel conflicted between why it has such a low registry of NCC-1031 and yet is clearly a brand spanking new ship. What other secrets are lurking behind its guarded doors? Is it Section 31? The opening shot as it saves the shuttle from destruction is very grandiose with the ship bathed in a glowing blue light from the tractor beam. Yep, she's arrived and we get to have a good walk round from the shuttle bay to crew quarters and the bridge.

Going over to the very cheap to replicate (and more advanced) sister ship of the USS Glenn offers an away mission and some surprises in Klingon and animal form but you get the sense that Stamets work and that of his counterpart on the doomed starship are going to have a massive effect on the show. Watch out for some nifty Easter Eggs when Lorca introduces Burnham to the effect of the spores as we view familiar alien worlds, some named and some not in a room that reminded me a whole lot of the reactor chamber from The Wrath of Khan.

The Discovery sets are pretty cool and techie with flashy touchscreen and heads up displays all round. It is of course not dissimilar to the Shenzhou since that was converted into the Crossfield Class starship that would be the series mainstay. Also nice to see - as we did in the pilot and I didn’t mention - that ships aren’t all shown flying on or meeting on the same plain of flight. The crippled Glenn is approached from below with the ship seemingly listing (all dependant on the perspective of course). This is superb thinking from the CG team and adds yet another layer to the show. 

In some respects the story isn't quite up to last week's epic opener but it's purpose is dramatically different. Instead of setting up Burnham's backstory it's designed to introduce us to a whole new set of characters who are immediately more developed than the "background" crew we encountered in The Vulcan Hello. Quick note of the inclusion of Emily Coutts as the battle-injured Keyla Detmer from the helm of the Shenzhou who snubs Burnham during her walk through the mess hall.

It's also here to start up a lot of plot threads - the intrigue of Lorca, the mystery of what precisely is going on aboard Discovery, what other elements of Burnham’s past are going to turn up (well, we know Amanda will be)...and probably more. I think everything we are seeing has a purpose in the show in some way. 

Context is for Kings is an effective welcome mat to Discovery but I still think that this show has more to come. I enjoyed the episode and the greater chance to explore the people as well as ramp up the interpersonal conflicts to 11. The acting was notably better with Martin-Green really playing a wide range of emotions from apparently withdrawn and defeated when death looks inevitable to selflessly proactive in helping her away team colleagues escape the Glenn’s only remaining living inhabitant.

Final note - the mention of Amanda and her son... who didn’t get a slight chill when Burnham mentioned that?!! Sure to be another point for some negative feedback! 

Don’t get me wrong, Discovery has got lots of little bits that aren’t quite Star Trek that was but we have to be realistic that it has to fit this decade and will take on learnings from the Kelvin Timeline. Can we really judge from three episodes? In some respects yes because it hasn’t yet attempted much beyond a war story and that’s disappointing but we only have 48 mins of the ‘proper’ ship and crew - let’s hold on judgement a little longer but it does need to be careful just how militaristic it is intending to be.

Are you happy with the direction of Context is for Kings? Is it staying true to Star Trek?

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