Monday, 31 August 2020

Temporal Edict: Lowers Decks S01 E03

Undeniably, Temporal Edict brings us the closest to ‘classic’ Star Trek as possible with its two main themes.

Once again running two stories in parallel, Lower Decks sends Mariner on an away mission led by first officer Jack Ransom while Boimler and the crew on the Cerritos are left to repel an attack by the Gelrakians following a "minor" misunderstanding on the planet’s surface.

The planetside plot is strongly reminiscent of The Original Series down to a clever nod to huge alien killing machines stepping out of the shadows at the last minute and the bizarre desire to WANT to be the one who partakes in the near-certain-death battle. Note in there too a couple of Riker-esque leg poses from Commander Ransom and your Trek bingo card will be stamped full just on this half of the episode. 

That said, even the cold open has its boss to The Next Generation with the lower decks officers taking part in their own musical concert, typically classical, until Mariner rocks up on guitar. 

The situation on the Cerritos will be a familiar one to fans who know about Mr Scott’s repair estimates with Boimler revealing ‘Buffer Time’ to Captain Freeman leading to the crew working triple speed to complete their assignments but then failing to repel an alien attack because of the time limits and penalties imposed. 

This one’s more off-the-wall then you'll expect from live action Star Trek with the crew blindly continuing their duties while the captain is manning the bridge solo and also against her own time limits.

Lower Decks certainly has a little more leeway in its narrative to poke fun at its own history and this is the most extreme. The resolution is kind of obvious and logical although it does lead into an unexpected but not unwelcome twist at the end that will have fans giving at least a nod of approval on a couple of points.

Episode three has also continued that Mariner and Boimler are absolutely our centre of attention leaving Rutherford and Tendi again to simmer in the background as part of the ship-board story. For an animated ensemble their development has been minimal while we already have a decent understanding of what drives the two command division ensigns. 

Indeed, Commander Jack Ransom, voiced by Jerry O'Connell, gets a chunk of exploration here, establishing him in the Kirk action role leading the battle from the front but also finding himself in minor conflict/attraction to the more practical Mariner.

I think I'd also now set Lower Decks as a satire rather than an all-out Star Trek comedy and it feels more settled at this point. The call outs to other shows aren't glaring all the time and a second and third watching will potentially highlight things we hadn't noticed the first time.

Temporal Edict also works perfectly in this half-hour format somehow managing to allow development of both character and plot. Mariner is the standout here and her one to one with Ransom is an episode highlight that also shows how McMahan and the Lower Decks team are highly aware of their audience and the expectations. References yes, raise a smile; yes but ultimately we want to see these as "real" people complete with their imperfections on the adventure of their Starfleet career. Regrettably the opportunity to use Tendi as this portal and for the viewers appears abandoned again - maybe next time?

What's your verdict on episode three?

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Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Envoys: Lower Decks S01 E02

Envoys is chock full of stuff Star Trek fans will love but it does feel that Lower Decks could potentially be a one trick pony.

The lighter tone, the brighter vistas; they all work wonderfully but episode two seems to be following a formula from last week - Boimler and Mariner are stuck on a planet and find that they can work together while there's a B story on the ship connecting Tendi and Rutherford.

A standard tale of transporting a Klingon general to a conference of course turns into a warped incident that goes to explore a little more of Mariner's background and her life experience in Starfleet that has put her into contact with many weird and wonderful lifeforms and adventures. Boimler continues as her foil, expressing his naivety once more and having to be saved from a series of "embarrassing" moments by his more worldly wise colleague.

Up on the ship, Rutherford decides to test out other job opportunities by having a crack at command, medicine in Sickbay and tackling security with him proving to be heavily unfit for two roles and surprisingly good at the third.

Envoys overall is ok. It's probably more fascinating to watch out for the references in this one than it is to pay attention to the story and I found that for a good deal of the half hour I was looking around at the animation on screen to spot the fan nods - the recurring dream Mariner has is a screaming referral to The Wrath of Khan, the town the pair of ensigns visit has a Horganah as its stone centrepiece and in a stroke of utter genius, the Vendorian shape shifter last seen in The Original Series turns up in a bar only to escape from a group of Andorians.

It's dead easy to watch but that's also it's problem. The creators are firmly aiming for the fan market here with the references and background inclusions but this detracts from your interest in what's going on. Instead of giving a crap about the characters I was more fascinated by how the Andorians looked, what style they chose to go with for the Borg holodeck opponents or what the Janeway protocol was (guessing this was blow up the damn ship!) than what the four leads were doing themselves.

The humour too was a little flat once again. It;s not quite full of pratfalls and "hilarious" misunderstandings but Lower Decks always feels that it's about a millimeter away from becoming either super-annoying or super-clever. It's not going to make anyone think deeply or go away to have a huge discussion on matters of life or death but it could make you really consider why some of these people still have jobs.

Seeing a Ferengi or a Klingon will always be something special but do we actually need to be reminded of the humour there? Do we need to be signposted what should be funny and in fact could some of the notes to what we have viewed before actually damage our further entertainment of the franchise's older series?

I understand that we want to fracture the tropes but what Envoys does is caricatures and stereotypes both Klingon and Ferengi without a bat of an eyelid. The Klingon drinks bloodwine and shouts a lot, the Ferengi speaks like Peter Lorre and slithers about. If it is the intention to point out the silliness in some of the established framework then its bang on the nose but it might be both clever and cutting too close to the bone all at the same time. 

Mariner is already the most deeply explored character with her background both shrouded in some level of classic TV shadows and at the same time we can see she is certainly worldly wise and fairly intelligent although it’s equally hidden in cockiness and bravado. Her know-it-all, been-there-done-that attitude could end up rubbing fans the wrong way with a continuous one upmanship versus Boimler but you can tell, especially from her actions at the end that she genuinely cares for her peer, to the point where she’ll take some ribbing to aid his personal confidence and development. 

Tendi, after being the audience route into Lower Decks felt very much sidelined in episode two and if it hadn’t been for the trip into sickbay I might have even forgotten she existed in the show. Hopefully this will be balanced out across the series although it is much more clearly a two horse show rather than the quartet we were briefed on since the opportunities within their characters offer more dramatic - and comedic - avenues.

I’m already excited for episode three with Lower Decks providing a much welcomed lighter and entertaining angle on the Star Trek universe. Sure its not to everyone’s taste or desires but that’s ironically its biggest win - the franchise has diversified, not taken itself too seriously nor shuttered itself off from the real world and has chosen to be daring. Envoys helps to round out the Lower Decks corner of the universe with its attention to detail and 50 years of canon and for me was a small step up from Second Contact.

What's your verdict on episode two?

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Wednesday, 12 August 2020

All Good Things... The Official Starships Collection Issues 178,179...and 180

But we are....

One hundred and eighty issues, .six years and eleven months later it's come to the last edition.  

As you might expect, it's a real mix of expectations and delivery with the Husnock Warship from The Survivors, the Vidiian Starship from Voyager's Deadlock and finally, perhaps fittingly and conspicuous by its very absence, the Borg Cube from First Contact. The Husnock ship from The Next Generation's pivotal third season might look a little familiar - and so it should since it's the original form that would be altered to become the Bajoran Freighter and the Smuggler's Ship from Unification among several others.

in terms of its detail, the original is probably this model in its simplest version. Coated in a plain grey with darker grey highlights, the Husnock Warship has a subtle aztec pattern across its surface with some small, raised details. Towards the centre the darker grey denotes the bridge module painted in with blue windows around two sides of the ‘v’ shaped unit.

In comparison to its later variants, the Husnock Warship continues to build towards the rear and Eaglemoss have accurately captured its simple but distinctively angular shape at the back end too. I always remember this one looking particularly "plasticky" on screen and I'm glad that they have kept that manufactured feel in the replica here. 

Everything about it seems almost too good to be true and too pure in form with only a series of blue and white dots, indicating the size of this craft, spread across the central piece to the rear. 

Out to the sides that clean, minimal finish has been maintained into the darker grey wings with each of these tipped with an underslung, pointed energy weapon. Both of the prongs to the sides are a little flexible but still feel sturdy. Indeed, the whole ship feels very solid thanks to its blocky structure. 

The rear of the warship is tonally even darker than the forward sections and carries a more condensed form of the aztecing seen elsewhere. The lines continue to be cleanly finished and the painting in of the engine is also crisp alongside what seems to be a small docking port just below it.

On the bottom, there's a fraction more detail to be seen. You get a better look at the greebling on the underside of the two weapon prongs which are more visibly attached into the main body of the ship. You also get a clearer view of the windows that line both sides of the hull almost right to the front.

There's a third weapon prong slapped in underneath and right in the middle which wasn't present during the Husnock's first attack during the Enterprise's first visit to the planet. This is noted a few times and lines up both the screen appearance with the model.

While you can see where this and the wingtip weapons fit into the ship, the main join line is hidden away below the overhang from the top of the hull giving an overall seemless impression.

The first of the three magazines in this delivery provides the usual ship overview as well as the customary plan views to compare against the model. In fairness they are very close perhaps on this occasion the CG and images contained therein are even more plain than the mode.. Issue 178 also includes a relevant section dedicated to the making of The Survivors especially in note to the location work that made this one such a memorable episode. Alongside the text are a good selection of photos from the story as well as behind the scenes from the time out of studio.

An excellent final piece for The Next Generation here allows Hans Beimler a chance to recount his memories from his time on the series including writing this episode and being involved with the many-handed Yesterday's Enterprise instalment from later in the same season.

The penultimate edition of the collection takes us into Voyager territory with the Vidiian Starship. It's only the second occasion that the race famed for its ravaging Phage has appeared in the series following issue 103's Warship which was actually used later in the series.

The overall design theme of them both is extremely similar although this later creation has a more golden coat but retains the "front heavy" concept tapering to the rear.

Certainly the colour difference is striking and actually out of character with keeping an aesthetic with alien ship continuity. Perhaps with the Vidiians though it was easier to retain a visual impression alone in the shape of their ships.At the front the starship features a pair of pincers arcing out to the front paralleled by the two warp engine humps on either side. 

The golden finish is speckled with white dots to indicate internal lighting and are painted onto the hull rather than sitting into indentations that probably wouldn't be aligned. Rather than an aztec look, the Vidiian ship carries distinct panelling across the whole surface .

Both the warp engines mounted as part of the wing design are tipped with a slightly orange glow before curving back into the larger "shoulders" of the ship and the assembled gubbings on top of the craft. It's not a stunner but the detail of the hull is well replicated from its limited outings and does come across as a model that more time was taken to complete given the texture of the hull, the colour and well, everything.

The structure around those main, prominent features are supplemented with well defined supporting sprues to the rear from the hull to the engine exhaust and then to the front, either side of the predatory pincers. It contrasts quite starkly to the Husnock Warship with its simple lines and plain finish, demonstrating once more the difference just six years of model creation and CG had made on the franchise.

Even out to the edges of the wings there are the geometric panel forms both top and bottom with the underside losing the spinal feature of the dorsal piece but retaining the finely painted engine in the centre back.The other less noticeable details that do reappear on both sides are the blacked out, recessed grilles on the engine pods, again with their painting precisely aligned with the indents. 

For a ship that, for once was used more than once but not more than twice, the Vidiian Starship is somewhat seductive with a smooth slimline shape and profile that Eaglemoss have done well to recreate. The stand positioning works very well with the negative space of the hull allowing for a central grip more evenly distributing the weight of the ship over the stand. It's a bit of a fiddle due to the length of the forks that grip the main hull from the back and how far the go back against the main hull but the end effect looks good.

This magazine is our last trip into the Delta Quadrant exploits of Voyager and focuses mainly on the second season. Opening by compiling the stats for the Vidiian Starship, the magazine suffers from not having that many good photos of this vessel to work with, leaving the visuals a little fuzzy or, at best, long distance. 

The CG here is better than the real thing, adding more texture to the ship than we received on screen or in the flesh. 

Starting out as another ship - that from an earlier season two episode, Parturition - the Vidiian ship made just two appearances in the excellent Deadlock and later in Fury before being replaced with the even more angular Warship.

Finally we take a look into the filming of the Voyager episode in which this starship appeared and it's one that took a lot to complete since there are two of the hero vessel, a challenging-to-film death scene and a sequence which saw Janeway meet Janeway. This probably provides more detail on the filming of the episode than the Voyager Companion (not the greatest series guide written) including how some of the pieces were successfully committed to film.

Deep breath now. 

Here we go - and forgive me if I stumble over this because we are now here...the Borg Cube and the end of the regular collection. Grab a hankie.

Now the last time we welcomed a six-sided addition to the series was the Tactical Cube in issue 58 from October 2015(!). Now we have our sixth Borg ship and the first "proper" Cube since we're not going to count the oh-so-well-remembered light up box that was among the initial free gifts way back when.

Unsurprisingly the whole thing is plastic so it's a bit of a double-edged finale since we would have sincerely loved this to be a true combo of the metal and plastic builds we've been used to since issue one.

But hey, there is one major redeeming feature which sets this one right above the Tactical Cube. That Borg craft cleverly repeated each of its sides meaning there were only three distinct elements combined in duplicate to make the threatening starship. Here, each side is unique, each piece carries its own markings and hull nuances and every surface is filled with technical detail including - and it would have been a major error to leave out - the hatch for the Borg Sphere on which the Queen makes her escape into the 21st Century.

Coated in a single dark grey, the hull of the cube is highlighted with marks of green to show the pulsing energy through the structure. This effect is a bit lost on a plastic model and it doesn't help that the depth of the craft that you see on the big screen is lost due to the nature of the building material which only allows for minor changes in the undulation of the detail. Final tip of the hat to Eaglemoss because I could swear point blank that the surface of the Tactical Cube under the added armour plating is almost identical to that of the First Contact cube - nice but of continuity/cheap option to reuse the mould...!

As for the fit together, the six sides are clipped into place internally with only a slight seam around two of the face to give any indication of the construction. As for the stand, it's the same principle as was utilised for the Tactical Cube - just sit it on a plastic shelf and attach to the base. Job. Done.

So to our last look into the magazines and we have a straight forward retelling of the opening battle sequence from First Contact  along with some crisp new CG of the distinctive craft and shots from the movie. As for designing the ship, it's a bit like trying to reinvent the wheel as we discover from the perspective of John Eaves.

Voyager introduced Borg Probes, the Queen's ship and the already hat-tipped Tactical Cube but it's odd to think that the lead alien vessel could have looked very different before the designers returned to the familiar - but even then it did look, initially, different to the screened version which even has its visual cues in the Artifact from Picard

Closing out this issue ahead of the Key Appearance is a brisk two page piece on how some of the Borg technology in the film came to'll be surprised as to what was used so I won't ruin the surprise.

And that's it. 180 issues over and done. We've reviewed every one from the very beginning and it's been an utter pleasure to do so. As for the pick of the crop from these three, well, let's not select a top dog this time. All three have some great merits and are pretty damn screen accurate all round. The magazines have a right mixture of quality with, as we've come to expect, some articles being over long and others that merit more length getting a few paragraphs.

Apparently we will have more collections coming in 2021 - so that'll be Picard and Lower Decks at a minimum...but who knows what else. For now the binders on this one can be snapped shut and filed. Could there have been more issues? Yes, but what would we have been left with since this felt as though we were already starting to get the splinters from the barrel bottom. The Official Starships Collection has been a major game changer for the franchise and one would suspect, Eaglemoss/Hero Collector as well and that will never ever be surpassed. 

You did us fans proud. 

Thank you.

Read all our other reviews of The Official Starships Collection from issue ONE here.

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Monday, 10 August 2020

Second Contact: Lower Decks S01 E01

For 30 minutes this sure crammed a lot in. 

The first episode of Lower Decks isn't perfect, its not even close to being a classic but for once, the Star Trek universe managed to get its comedy almost spot on. I wasn't rolling in the aisles for half an hour but what Mike McMahon and the team have achieved should definitely be applauded. 

Second Contact has a classic Star Trek disease plot that fans will immediately spot is parodying many an Original Series episode but here it’s relegated to the B story while we focus more on Boimler and Mariner. Even the title sequence is a spin on what has come before especially the more relaxed, exploratory Voyager opening although here there’s a suitably Lower Decks twist on your expectations and doesn't take itself too seriously.

Big thumbs up too for choosing the Next Generation font and including episode titles - it’s like being back in 1991 all over again. its the relationship between these two characters which looks to be the fulcrum of Lower Decks with the two of them playing from very different perspectives to meet somewhere in the middle. 

Mariner is the demoted ‘cool’ kid while her foil is the by-the-book and hot for promotion Boimler who here is entrusted with a mission from the captain of the USS Cerritos to watch over his troublesome fellow ensign. Their antics do take us into some understanding of this second contact trope in which they are following up on the initial visit by what you can assume is a much more important starship.

At the core we have a character story in which the two command division ensigns come to the realisation that they're sort of ideal for each other while the medical ensign, Tendi, provides us with the perspective of the new arrival, joining the ship right at the start of the story. Boimler and Mariner do get the best treatment in terms of getting to know their characters while Rutherford (complete with his new bionic upgrade) and Tendi unfortunately fall into the more action-heavy "B" story and suffer to some extent from both the run-time and brisk pace of that segment of the episode. 

Tendi's youthful optimism and naivety are perfectly set to be the officer newbies to the franchise and the show can latch onto but Rutherford seems a bit of a mix of all three with a tint of nerd and action-hero in there for good measure. Of the four he's the one I would like to see fleshed out more in the coming weeks as he does feel underappreciated here even through the date night which turns into a zombie-horror event.

For once the senior officers take a back seat. The four main ones - the captain, her first officer, chief medic and chief of security - are present but in the background and, laughably, taking credit for the solution to the zombie problem even though the lower decks ensemble have more of an impact than they're given credit for - and I suspect this won't be the last time that scenario is played out.

The tonal choices of the two plot threads this week are not exactly suitable for young children with flesh eating zombies and then gigantic (vegetarian) spiders but they also explore the potential that the animated realm can offer over live action and even the things that can be done with CG. This is the most imaginative vista that Star Trek has painted since The Animated Series in the 70's because there are no limitations to what can be done, no stops on who or what can appear - anything is possible from any point in the timeline - now THAT'S a powerful thought.

The jokes might not be belly-laugh inducing but where Lower Decks succeeds in this half an hour is playing with our expectations, dropping in a neat fan-pleasing reference (a VISOR, the Argo...) in a familiar visual style that will seek to attract fans particularly of The Next Generation while still telling that humanising story. It is a delicate balance and at this point it feels that Second Contact is probing the possibilities and seeing what can be done. It is lighter than anything live action in the cooker at the present time with a much brighter visual palette and, for the first time since Enterprise, stand alone episodes that mean we can dip in and out at any time and not feel as though we've missed a massive, essential plot point. This could make Lower Decks the most accessible series for fans to revisit from the Kurtzman era - at least until we get Strange New Worlds.

Is it something that will be accessible to a wider audience too? Maybe not so and it does feel that through the less serious tone, the style of the animation and the period specific setting, this is going to be a niche piece of the ever growing Star Trek franchise. For some it might just be that necessary fix to get them through until Discovery yet either way it's great to see that Star Trek is embracing the unknown and, in an odd way, stepping over its own boundary into new frontiers. I honestly can't see viewers who aren't already fans or at least casual viewers of Star Trek tuning in for this. It's a good avenue for parents to get their offspring of a certain age perhaps wanting to see what else is out there but this does come across as the series which will draw the least amount of fresh attention to this universe.

If we were to stick a rating on here it would be a firm 3.5 out of 5. It's a steady start to the series introducing the main cast of ensigns plus their counterparts on the bridge in a suitably Star Trek way - but there's still much to be worked on to properly find its feet in what could well be the most unique and engaging Star Trek for a generation.

What's your take on this animated foray? Hit? Miss? Maybe?

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