Star Trek Saturday BONUS

That’s right, we’re talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation!

Specifically, the season 3 episode that first introduced me to the show and Trek at large, “The Offspring.” It’s a poignant hour that focuses on one of the most fundamental relationships in history–that of a parent and a child–from the most outside perspective possible.

Why did I decide to talk about this episode? Well, in honor of William Shatner’s 82nd birthday last week, Hulu made every episode of every Star Trek series available on their website –a promotion that expires today, so go get on that. As I said, this was the first episode of TNG I had ever seen; I saw the 2009 film of course, but this was the first Trek TV episode I ever saw and it was getting into TNG that turned me into a Trekkie. However, I had only seen the second half of this episode, so this was a treat to see it all the way through.

The episode opens with Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), an android for the unfamiliar, summoning Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Ensign/Insufferable Know-It-All Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) to his personal laboratory. He reveals to them that he created a Soong-type android (the same type of android as him, named after his creator Dr. Noonian Soong) and has named it Lal; looking like, well, like the picture below, Lal refers to Data as “Father” which confuses the others, but Data tells them that yes, Lal is his child.

Lal android

Data explains that, with a new piece of technology introduced at a cybernetics conference he recently attended, he was able to program a positronic brain (something which hasn’t been done since Data’s creation) by essentially transferring his programming into it.

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) meets with Data and tells him that he would have appreciated being consulted on this decision. He informs Data that what he has done will have enormous ramifications, especially when Starfleet finds out. Data asks whether he should switch Lal off; Picard replies that he shouldn’t because, by creating life, he has assumed a major set of responsibilities and can’t just ignore them. Picard says that those responsibilities have nothing to do with being a parent, but Data wonders if in fact that does not describe becoming a parent. He tells Picard, “I have observed that in most species there is a primal instinct to perpetuate themselves. Until now I have been the last of my kind. If I would be damaged or destroyed, I will be lost forever. But if I am successful with the creation of Lal, my continuance is assured. I understand the risk, sir. And I am prepared to accept the responsibility.”

Troi asks why Lal looks so androgynous; Data says that he wishes for Lal to choose its own sex and appearance; after looking through several thousand virtual bodies on the holodeck (as Data says, “This is a big decision. “), Lal chooses the form of a human female (Hallie Todd) and Data is able to give her more realistic skin than his own.

Lal begins learning slowly and, as Data slowly transfers more and more of his knowledge, she begins asking questions incessantly. Data simply turns her off mid-sentence and decides that she will be enrolled in school on the Enterprise-D. Because of her limited social skills, she is placed with the younger children, but they are frightened of her. Meanwhile, Picard hears from Starfleet Admiral Haftel (Nicolas Coster) who informs him that because she is the only other Soong-type android in existence, she needs to be observed by Starfleet scientists, but Picard refuses on Data’s behalf. But what ultimately happens with Lal is something no one sees coming…

Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is barely in this episode and the reason for that is, well, Jonathan Frakes actually directed this episode! It was the first episode of Trek he ever directed, going on to direct several more as well as two films, Insurrection and First Contact; he’s gone on since then to become a rather prominent director and this episode shows why. The bulk of the episode is just one-on-one conversations, but his camera makes things seem intimate and natural, rather than stilted and uninteresting.

Interaction is also key, which makes sense, given that the whole episode is an examination of the parent-child relationship. Since discovering The Next Generation, I’ve always felt Spiner should have won an Emmy Award for playing Data, and this episode shows why: he may be an android, but he comes off as the most human of anyone in the room. The way Spiner and Todd interact is remarkable and moving, with their last scene together being especially poignant.

The rest of the cast is great too; Stewart is his usual spectacular self as Picard, showing real care for Data’s situation even though he himself is not a parent. Sirtis is Troi’s usual compassionate, caring self.  As Haftel, Coster could have been a one-note villain, but he manages a complete turnaround within a few short minutes of screentime. Whoopi Goldberg’s recurring character, the mysterious Guinan, is also present here, and Goldberg is just as appealing as ever in the role.

Rene Echevarria’s script is warm and inviting, really speaking, one imagines, from the hearts of parents everywhere. Recommended without a doubt.

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Code Geass Revisited

So tonight, Calvin’s Anime Club is watching the first three episodes of Code Geass and I am really excited!

For the unfamiliar, Code Geass is an anime, created by Sunrise–the studio behind the popular Gundam franchise–and with character designs by CLAMP, a famous all-female group of mangaka or manga artists.

File:Code Geass DVD.jpg

The show takes place in an alternate history where the British Empire never dissolved and eventually became the Holy Britannian Empire, a global superpower that, in 2010, conquered the nation of Japan, renaming it Area 11 and designating the Japanese as “Elevens.” Protagonist Lelouch vi Britannia (the guy in front up there) is actually the son of the Royal Emperor, but as part of some incredibly convoluted shenanigans involving his mother’s murder, he and his younger sister Nunnally–left blinded and crippled in the attack that killed their mom–were exiled to Japan just before the invasion.

Several years later, Lelouch, now living under the last name Lamperouge, is a student at Ashford Academy and an expert chess player; while driving his motorcycle on the highway with his best friend Rivalz, they witness what looks like a truck crash, but is actually a foiled hijacking by Japanese freedom fighters.

Lelouch investigates and comes across a mysterious, green-haired woman named C.C. (called C2) who grants him a mysterious power called Geass that enables him to control someone just by staring at them and ordering them. This new power sets off a dense web of intrigue that spreads to the top of the Britannian empire and beyond.

I watched all of this show last year in English, so I’m hoping tonight we watch it in the original Japanese just for variety; I’ll update this later with my thoughts.

AND UPDATE: OK, so we did watch the first three episodes in Japanese after all, and I did, as I thought I would, notice some changes. By and large, the story of Japan being invaded and utterly abused by another country (in a news report of an explosion in the first episode, the dead Japanese are simply referred to as others) just has more poignancy and passion behind it when conveyed by a Japanese cast.

And what a cast, let me tell you! As Lelouch–who, in the dub, was portrayed by Johnny Yong Bosch as a man with noble intentions slowly corrupted from the inside out–, Jun Fukuyama was conniving and charismatic, showing why he won the inaugural Saiyu Award for Best Male Actor in this role. As Kallen Statfeld, one of the Japanese rebels–voiced in English by Karen Strassman–Ami Koshimazu was terse and abrasive, showing just what happens when you put your life on the line for freedom.

Some other observations: 1. Rivalz, voiced in English by Brian Beacock and in Japanese by Noriaki Sugiyama, is annoying as hell no matter what. 2. The show’s animation is still utterly gorgeous. 3. Nunnally, as voiced by Kaori Nazuka in Japanese, is much, much less annoying than in the English dub voiced by Rebecca Forstadt. Seriously, sometimes a voice can make all the difference.

Star Trek Saturdays #18

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #18!

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This week’s episode is “The Squire of Gothos” and if you thought last time’s episode was pretty loopy, this has it beat!

Our story begins with the Enterprise, en route to the Beta IV colony, having to pass through a “star desert,” a region of space where solar systems are uncommon. They unexpectedly encounter a lone planet; Sulu, at the helm, prepares to steer around it when he suddenly vanishes, as does Kirk.

Spock and the bridge crew conduct a sensor sweep to determine where the two are and come to the conclusion that they must be on the planet even though their instruments indicate it is inhospitable.

A landing party led by Spock beams down and, to their surprise, discover a Gothic manor in an Earth-like atmosphere. They enter and discover a room full of bizarre artifacts and Kirk and Sulu, frozen in place. A door slams, a harpsichord starts playing and the party turns to see a man who identifies himself as General Trelane, the Squire of Gothos (William Campbell).

Trelane

Trelane unfreezes Kirk and Sulu with a wave of his hand and explains that he wishes to befriend the landing party, implying that he’ll only let them leave when he feels like it. Kirk tries to make a break for it, but an enraged Trelane snaps his fingers and teleports them to the surface of the planet away from his house, which is full of poisonous gas. As Kirk falls to the ground, choking, Trelane appears and informs him that he simply cannot leave and must do as he says. But who or what is Trelane and what does he want with the Enterprise?

If certain elements of last time’s episode–if you watched the episode, you know what I mean–remind you, as they did me, of the timeless Q from TNG, then Trelane will too. Key to that is Campbell’s performance, which has just the same egomania and childlike glee that John de Lancie gave to Q decades later. Acting off a charismatic villain like that gives the cast some great material: Shatner demonstrates Kirk’s cunning, Nimoy gives us some more great Spock facial expressions and Takei actually gets something to do for once as Sulu.

To go back to Q for a second, according to Memory Alpha, in a Next Generation novel called Q-Squared, Trelane is revealed to actually be a member of the Q Continuum along with two other beings revealed at the end of this episode in a fashion that reminded me, of all things, of “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” the Futurama episode that paid tribute to Trek. But while that reveal was humorous, this was a little more poignant.

As with any charismatic villain, key to making Trelane work is the script and this one, by Paul Schneider, is a good one, giving Campbell plenty of crackling lines to bite into. Schneider wrote the immortal “Balance of Terror,” and his prowess is just as on display here. The direction, by Don McDougall, is a delight, taking great pains to set up Trelane’s backwards perceptions of Earth culture (he dresses and acts the way he does because he thinks the Earth is still in the 17th Century) and ramping up the conflict between Trelane and Kirk, which results in some wonderfully spooky imagery with some very effective lighting. Overall, this episode is recommended without a doubt.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

R.I.P. Chenua Achebe

So I was going to talk about something else, but then I learned earlier today that writer Chinua Achebe–the first-ever novelist to hit big out of Africa and probably the only African writer most Westerners are exposed to–died today at the age of 82.

I first encountered Achebe’s writing when I read his first novel, Things Fall Apart, last year as part of a global literature course. I found the book’s story–which focuses on Okonkwo, a leader and feared wrestler in the Nigerian village of Umuofia, and what happens to him when he has to take care of a boy from another village, Ikemefuna, and the encroaching influence of both incoming British colonialism and Christian missionaries on his people.

The book is one powerful ride, providing a unique glimpse at a period of history too overlooked from a perspective not widely understood. Achebe was actually educated in the British system. Despite this, he still felt it necessary to speak out against all that the English colonizers had done to his people.

That belief–that conviction that you must speak out against the system, even if the system has benefited you–is an admirable one and I applaud him, as have many others, for doing so.

Regrettably, I’ve read nothing of his stuff outside of Things, but I plan to correct that. So rest in peace, Mr. Achebe. Your legacy will be treasured by literary lovers for generations to come.

 

Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone–Review

(Credit: Sadako’s Movie Shack)

If you know anything about anime, you know that one of its cornerstones is the mecha genre. This genre divides itself into two categories: Super Robot–which is big crazy action ala Gigantor–and Real Robot–which uses giant robots and child soldiers as weighty metaphors, usually to comment on the futility of war or some such like the various Gundam series.

Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, a feature film remake and consolidating of the first six episodes of the legendary anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, fits rather easily into the Real Robot side of things. But it’s not a metaphor for the cruelty of war; rather, it’s one for, well….I don’t really know to be honest.

I have yet to watch the show (which is considered one of the cornerstones of modern anime) but from what I understand, all sorts of things have been attributed to this show from serving as a psychoanalysis of its creator and writer/director Hidekai Anno to a commentary on religion to all manner of stuff. The film–which aired here in America on the Toonami block last weekend–carries this over too, being presented in such a way that it supports many interpretations and can balance them all in a smart fashion.

Let’s get to the plot: Shinji Akari (Spike Spencer), an insecure teenager, is sent for by his estranged–to put it mildly–father Gendo (John Swasey) and is told to meet Lt. Col. Misato Katsuragi (Allison Keith) in a part of the city of Tokyo-3. Unfortunately, Shinji can’t call her to let her know he’s arrived due to a state of emergency being declared over the forces of the UN battling a mysterious being known as an Angel.

Misato shows up, saves Shinji as they are caught in a ginormous explosion and takes him to the underground area GeoFront and the secret headquarters of NERV, a security organization that fights the Angels using the weapons and forces of the UN but also has a secret weapon in the giant mecha known as Evangelion. Shinji, as Gendo explains, has been brought to NERV simply because he needs to pilot the unit EVA-01 as the only other pilot they have, another teenager named Rei Ayanami (Brina Palencia), is critically injured. After some convincing–read: he sees the horribly injured Rei wheeled right out in front of him as she attempts to get up and pilot the thing–Shinji agrees to do it and enters a life of living with Misato, piloting the EVA and fighting these strange Angel creatures.

Sounds simple, right? Well, it AIN’T and that’s what makes it hard to summarize. As you might have gathered so far, or if you’re familiar with the show at all, you know that this is a dense, dense show, full of depth and richness…but it’s also confusing at the outset. Indeed, I found the first third of the movie–particularly the first fifteen minutes–rather difficult to understand and confusing to watch. But once the movie settles in and starts ratcheting up the plot and action, things get very interesting.

The animation here–basically a crisper redo of the show but with added scenes and newer CG added–is gorgeous. This is by Gainax, the production company best known for off-the-wall stuff like FLCL and Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. This is the most straightforward, serious thing I’ve ever seen from them and technically, they pull it off very well. My only complaint is that sometimes the lighting is very dark and dim. I had to rewind some crucial scenes multiple times just to figure out what was going on and that’s never a good thing.

Story-wise, this felt a bit rushed. Like I said, those first fifteen minutes are a drag and just sort of catapult you right into the setup with exposition and whathaveyou revealed later on; that can be a good thing, but here, it makes the first bit–particularly for a newcomer like me–odd to sit through and very head-scratching.

The English cast, working from a dub script by Funimation (the Disney of anime in that they own the North American rights to just about everything) and directed by Mike McFarland, is rather terrific. The bulk of them starred in the dub of the television series and here, they sound like they’re fitting back comfortably in their roles; Shinji Akari is the role that made Spencer famous and he shows why with an angsty performance that is whiny at times but still compelling, Keith is both funny and commanding as Misato and Swasey, who has the unenviable task of bringing to life Gendo, the biggest a**hole I have ever seen in fiction, pretty much does just that. The only new addition here is Brina Palencia as Rei (replacing Amanda Winn-Lee from the series) and, although she doesn’t speak too much, she portrays the tortured aspect of this girl very well.

So, as a new viewer, did I like it? Well, yes; by and large, I can see why this franchise is so beloved. But it is also very dense, even when squished into a movie; I had to go on Wikipedia afterwards to make sure I understood the plot. But aside from that, I found this film cerebral, engaging and fascinating. If symbolism and cryptic metaphors as laid out by robots fighting stuff is your thing, then check it out.

One last thing: I know it says Evangelion 1.0 on the poster and yes, that’s the film’s original title. But it was released with some updates on DVD and Blu-Ray as 1.11 and that’s the title Toonami aired it under, so that’s how I put it.

Star Trek Saturdays #17

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #17!

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This week’s episode is “Shore Leave” and…it just might be the weirdest Trek I’ve seen so far. But it’s fun!

We open with Kirk stating in his captain’s log that the Enterprise has been through a grueling three months (what with the captain assaulting his yeoman, a super-powerful teenager wreaking havoc aboard the ship and Kirk being accused of killing someone, I’d tend to agree). Thus, they are currently orbiting a planet in the Omicron Delta region that seems lush and uninhabited; just the sort of place they need for shore leave.

McCoy and Sulu, along with several others, are on the planet’s surface as a landing party investigating to make sure it’s safe. McCoy, noting the surreality of a place this perfect, says it’s something out of Alice In Wonderland. He walks away from Sulu and then he sees the White Rabbit…

White Rabbit, 2267

and Alice herself.

Alice, 2267

Believe it or not, it gets weirder…

Other crewmen beam down to the planet and also begin experiencing strange apparitions. Sulu finds a pistol on the ground and begins shooting targets with it–he collects vintage weapons, apparently. Lt. Esteban Rodriguez (Perry Lopez) sees a flock of birds and Kirk–who goes down despite his insistence on not leaving until Spock, in a brilliant, funny scene, reminds him that a Starfleet officer must perform efficiently above all else by telling him of a crewman whose performance is disrupted by his extreme lack of rest; that crewman is, of course, Kirk–sees two people from his past which bring out totally different reactions in him.

First, he sees Finnegan (Bruce Mars), who was a senior when he was a freshman at Starfleet Academy and always tormented him; he refers to Finnigan as “My own personal devil.

Finnegan jaunty

Then he meets Ruth (Shirley Bonne), an old flame who entrances Kirk whenever she appears. Like Finnegan, she is from Kirk’s younger days at the Academy.

Ruth (amusement park planet)

But things on the planet become even more sinister. Spock contacts the landing party and tells them that he’s detected an energy field on the surface of the planet that is draining the ship’s power, causing communications to become problematic. To make matters worse, more dangerous things crop up to torment the crew: Rodriguez and Angela Martine (Barbara Baldwin;  remember how her character’s wedding got interrupted from “Balance of Terror?) find themselves face-to-face with a tiger and then get attacked by a Japanese WWII fighter plane; Sulu gets chased by a samurai and Yeoman Tonia Barrows (Emily Banks) nearly gets assaulted by Don Juan.

After that, Barrows runs into McCoy and he calms her down. They then proceed to the beam down point where Kirk has ordered the landing party to rendezvous. While they walk, Barrows tells McCoy that this planet is such a beautiful place that “a girl can really feel like a princess.” Then what appears, but some princess clothes! Barrows, ecstatic, tells McCoy while she changes, “Don’t peek.”

“My dear girl,” McCoy replies, ” I am a doctor. When I peek, it’s in the line of duty.“” Leonard “Bones” McCoy: he’s awesome like that.

Continuing their walk, hand in hand, McCoy tells Barrows that if they ever run into any foul knights, he will protect her. Then, on cue, the Black Knight appears.

Black Knight

McCoy, firmly believing the Knight isn’t real, stands his ground as he charges them, and gets stabbed straight through the chest for his efforts. With McCoy seemingly dead, Kirk, Spock (who has beamed down by this point, in the nick of time as the transporter is now unusable), Barrows and the others must discover: who is responsible for all these things appearing? And why?

“Shore Leave” is a surreal little blast of an episode. The threats here are just as scary as those in earlier episodes, but the surreality comes from the central concept that this planet can apparently make anything appear at will in response to someone’s comment or thought. That quality of the unexpected keeps things interesting, as you never know what’s going to come next.

Another thing that works in this episode’s favor is that the cast is isolated, so the actors really have to amp things up and they do. Kirk gets all sorts of new depth as we learn that, yeah, he used to get bullied and yeah, he has an old flame he’s still hung up on. That’s a great deal of humanization. Interestingly, there’s speculation, according to Memory Alpha, that Ruth might be the woman Kirk says Gary Mitchell introduced him to and who he almost married in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Personally, I’m down with it, but there’s no official word.

The rest are great too: Spock gets to be funny and deadpan, McCoy gets to be heroic and hilarious and Sulu, although he’s a little shortshrifted, gets some nice moments. Lopez, Baldwin and Banks are all fine, too, particularly Banks because, even though Barrows never appears again, she makes a very strong impression and is a really interesting character. So interesting in fact, that, according to Memory Alpha, in the novels, she and McCoy wind up getting married!

But special attention must be given to Bonne’s Ruth and Mars’ Finnigan. Bonne is given a role that is, to me, rather underwritten, but in her short screen time, she makes the most of it. She’s alluring and mysterious, but the tenderness she has for Kirk, and he for her, is fascinating to watch.

And Mars is just awesome as Finnegan. Just plain awesome. Yeah, he has a corny Irish accent, but he’s also got undeniable charisma and energy. Mars was a model and athlete before getting into acting, and I can believe it; he has that natural eye-catching appeal that both those professions require, and he plays it well here, giving us a great one-off villain.

The story of this episode is a pretty interesting one:  the script, credited to Theodore Sturgeon, was rejected by Gene Roddenberry for having too much fantasy and unbelievability. Roddenberry gave the script to Gene L. Coon to rewrite it, but he made things worse. Consequently, Roddenberry had to rewrite the script heavily himself during shooting. And while that could have made things disastrous, instead, everything turns out fine.

The script overall is, like I said, intriguing and interesting. That, coupled with some really nice direction by Robert Sparr that highlights the surreality of the story and the beauty of what I’m pretty sure is Yellowstone National Park, makes this a cool little detour from normal Trek. Check it out.

Before we go, I’d like to note that Malachi Throne, who played Commodore Mendez and voiced the Keeper in “The Menagerie” parts 1 and 2 and later came back as the Romulan Pardek in the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter “Unification,” died last Thursday at the age of 84. He did a lot of cool stuff as a character actor and you should check some of it out. My thoughts go out to his friends and family.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About An Hour

Have you ever heard of the Just For Laughs Festival? It’s a multi-day festival that has multiple comedians invading a city (usually Montreal, but last summer,  it expanded to Chicago) and performing.

Well, the city of Grand Rapids, MI has a similar thing: Laughfest. Running from March 7 to 17, it’s had all sorts of comedians like Joel McHale and Wayne Brady.

Calvin College, my school,  got into it too, playing host to nationally recognized comic W. Kamau Bell, host of FX’s awesome talk show Totally Biased on Monday night. Bell, a renowned stand-up from the San Francisco area and a protege of Chris Rock, performed the latest iteration of his one-man show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism In About An Hour.

Bell has been performing this show for years and it was a performance of this show that convinced Chris Rock to become his champion. So how was the show?

In a word: amazing.

If you’re not familiar with Bell or his show (and you should be; this YouTube channel is quite fun), you should know that he focuses on politics and race in stand up; the latter should be evident from the title of the show.

Bell opened off-stage with a PowerPoint, which he used throughout the show, explaining that while we would never hear “the ‘n’ word,” we–an audience consisting of mostly white people–would definitely hear…the n word.

Bell also showed a clip of himself on the Comedy Central show Premium Blend from 2005 talking about how Barack Obama would never become President because “that name is too black.”

Throughout his set, Bell was provocative, uncompromising and hilarious. He also incorporated the audience into his bits; during a segment on the census, he took time to talk to a Puerto Rican American audience member about what her life is like. He also, during a bit on this recent news story about a white businessman who slapped a black infant on an airplane, encouraged the white audience members to speak up until one person admitted it made him feel ashamed as a white man.

One of the other big points Bell made was that white people, in his view, need to accept that white is in fact a race, not the absence of race. Those bits have been swirling around in my head ever since.

It only cost me $5 as a student to attend this show and I’m glad I went. Bell forced a serious conversation in through humor and I’m glad he did it.