Star Trek Saturdays #36

It’s time for….Star Trek Saturdays #36!

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Important note: starting today, this feature will be going biweekly so I don’t miss an update.

This week’s episode is “Amok Time” and it is stellar from start to finish, giving us our first glimpse into Vulcan culture, the first Vulcan salute, and real, honest insight into the relationship between Kirk and Spock.

We open with McCoy informing Kirk that Spock has grown restless, stopped eating and is altogether not like himself. Kirk brushes them off, but when they see Nurse Chapel bringing Spock some Vulcan soup, only to have him (offscreen) throw it and yell at her, he becomes concerned. He rushes to Spock’s quarters where Spock, refusing to tell him why he’s acting this way, asks for a leave of absence so that he can journey to his home planet of Vulcan.

Although the Enterprise is headed to the planet Altair IV to be present at the king’s coronation ceremony on behalf of the Federation, Kirk orders a course set for Vulcan, seeing as how the planet is not that far out of our way. However, after receiving a message from Starfleet Command that the ceremony has been moved up a week early, they are forced to revert to their original course. Kirk, wanting to help his friend, later asks Chekov how late they’d be if they diverted to Vulcan.

Surprised, Chekov tells him that they’re already on course for Vulcan, per a course Spock laid out. When asked about this, Spock claims no memory of doing this, but states that if  Chekov says he did, then he must have. Kirk orders Spock to sickbay, where, after a battery of tests, an anguished McCoy tells Kirk that Spock is suffering from such high levels of adrenaline that, within eight days, he’ll be dead from the stress.

Kirk presses Spock to tell him what’s going on, and eventually Spock relents, explaining that his agitation is caused by “Vulcan biology;” in other words, the Vulcan reproductive cycle, or pon farr, has begun. Spock explains that Vulcans enter this state once every seven years and that they must return to Vulcan to mate just as salmon must go to their original stream to spawn. He explains that it is very painful for the Vulcans, such a logical race, to regress to such urges and that they cloak the whole affair in ritual out of embarrassment.

Kirk promises to help and, defying all orders, steers the Enterprise at full speed towards Vulcan. Once there, they make contact and a beautiful Vulcan woman (Arlene Martel) appears onscreen, exchanging greetings with Spock.

“She’s beautiful,” Nurse Chapel says. “Who is she?”

“She,” Spock says, “is T’Pring. My wife.”

After explaining that he and T’Pring were betrothed to each other at the age of 7, Spock beams down for pon farr, but asks that Kirk, as his friend, goes along, as well as McCoy; he is entitled to this right, he says. And they head down to the planet.

This is where it pays off to watch the remastered version, as here, we see completely digital inserts of the surface of Vulcan, which look absolutely stunning.

File:Vulcan arena and city - remastered.jpg

Arriving at an arena atop a high, desolate peak that Spock says has belonged to his family for eons, a procession enters, bearing not only T’Pring, but also the legendary Vulcan T’Pau (Celia Lovsky), who Kirk recalls as an iconic diplomat, and the only person to ever turn down a seat on the Federation High Council.

After reaffirming Spock’s commitment to T’Pring, T’Pau says that the ceremony–the koon-ut-kal-if-fee–can now begin. But during the ceremony, T’Pring interrupts by shouting, “Kal-if-fee,” invoking her right to have Spock– who, at this point, is subsumed with his feelings–fight for her. Kirk and McCoy speculate that a male Vulcan in T’Pring’s entourage will be made to fight her, but, to their surprise, she chooses Kirk!

Given that the kal-if-fee is a fight to the death, will Spock give in to his feelings and do away with Kirk? How will Kirk survive? And why did T’Pring choose him?

This is an astonishing episode, and it should be of no surprise to anyone that Joseph Pevney is in the director’s chair again. He’s quite simply the finest director Trek had, and his mastery is in every frame. No shot is wasted, no setup is too silly. Everything fits the story and the tension is palpable throughout. The episode’s score is by Gerard Fried, and Pevney and his editor perfectly tie its lush themes to every scene.

Theodore Sturgeon’s script is utterly fascinating, giving us a glimpse of what Vulcans are underneath all their logic, as well as giving us our first glimpse into Vulcan society at large, including the first ever performance of the Vulcan salute ( between Spock and T’Pau) as well as the first utterance of the Vulcan language.

The cast takes this ball and runs with it. Shatner gives great depth to Kirk’s loyalty, and DeForest Kelley has some typically great zingers, as well as genuine concern for Spock that shines through. Martel doesn’t have much to do outside of standing and looking pretty, but she’s good at that, and also projects an air of icy imperialness quite well. Lovsky does most of the heavy lifting as T’Pau, using her natural Viennese accent to give her a sense of alienness and ancient authority. You may not always understand her words, but they’re riveting.

But obviously, this is Nimoy’s show through and through. He’s incredible, showing just how frightening it can be when the calmest person in the room flies off the handle. He also deftly portrays Spock’s grappling with his desires, which are difficult enough for him to subsume as a half-Vulcan, but at this time, it’s damn near impossible. It’s an exhilarating trip he takes viewers on and I heartily recommend this episode. It was nominated for a Hugo, along with four other Trek episodes (with “The City On The Edge of Forever” ultimately winning) and it’s easy to see why.

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Will Eisner’s The Spirit–“Visitor”

Recently, I read the collection The Best of The Spirit, a series of stories cherrypicked by DC Comics after Will Eisner’s death showcasing the revolutionary work he did on his groundbreaking comic book newspaper supplement, The Spirit, the adventures of a masked crimefighter, from 1940-1952. All stand-alone, each tale is a master exercise in comics writing, penciling and composition.

But for Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge Month, curated by the Little Red Reviewer, I’m gonna focus on one story in particular, 1949’s “Visitor,” which sees the Spirit, nominally an urban crimefighter, cross wits with a woman who claims to be an invader from Mars.

The story begins with the Spirit and Police Commissioner Dolan investigating a bank in the aftermath of a robbery that was interrupted by a gigantic explosion, killing one of the robbers and disintegrating the other one, as well as the teller, Ms. Cosmek. Arriving at Cosmek’s house on a desolate beach, the Spirit finds the surviving robber tied up. Ms. Cosmek, it turns out, was behind the explosion because, as she tells the Spirit, she’s a spy sent from Mars, but doesn’t want to leave because she loves the Earth, as all emotions are banned on Mars.

Is Cosmek lying or not? Well, there’s chatter from a radio purporting to be from her Martian superiors and a scene with another character said to be another Martian agent at the end seems to underscore this. But ultimately, Eisner leaves things to the reader’s imagination.

This is, put it simply, a classic bit of SF mixed into an urban setting. In an essay about Will Eisner reprinted in his book collection Heroes and Villains, the journalist and critic David Hajdu derided the final years of the strip, when Eisner was detached and in a more supervisory role, as full of “loopy science-fiction stories.” But if they included stuff as exciting and dynamic as this story, I’ll take it.

The Best of the Spirit, incidentally, is an excellent book and possibly the best glimpse you’ll get into such a pivotal comic character. DC has been reprinting the strip in Archive Editions for several years, but they’re quite expensive. Go with this book instead. It’s terrific and full of mind-bendingly wonderful comics, plus it has a wonderful appreciation written by Neil Gaiman. So what more incentive do you need?

Sherlock–From Worst To Best

So the long-awaited Season 3 of Sherlock finally premiered here in America on PBS this past Sunday. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and thinking about it inspired me to think about the previous 6 episodes of Sherlock (spread across 2 seasons and available on Netflix/Amazon Instant/Hulu Plus). Specifically, where I rank them and which I think is the best story. So, here we go:

6. The Blind Banker (Season 1, Episode 2)

Never have I seen a piece of television start out so promising and torpedo itself with its own storytelling so swiftly. A grafittied painting in a bank leads to Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch being called in to investigate, where he and Watson (Martin Freeman) eventually uncover a deep conspiracy involving a Chinese smuggling ring funded by the Triads and an expat pottery expert (Gemma Chan) who’s tied up with them.

Chinese gang warfare isn’t explored much in Western media, so this should be interesting. But Mark Gatiss’ script collapses under its own convolutedness and Euros Lyn, usually a quite capable television director, seems completely lost. This can honestly be skipped with no character development or continuity gap.

5. A Scandal in Belgravia (Season 2, Episode 1)

I don’t hate this episode on its own merits so much as I hate what it does to the mythos and how it demonstrates the grosser aspects of Steven Moffat’s writing. Picking up immediately after the events of the first season finale, Sherlock and Watson are hired by Holmes’ older brother, British government employee Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), to retrieve a series of compromising photographs of a (female) member of the Royal Family from professional dominatrix Irene “The Woman” Adler (Lana Pulver) while dealing with another mystery involving a man’s body appearing in the middle of nowhere. Adler, however, seems just as smart as Sherlock, and also is clearly drawn to him.

Turning Adler–who was certainly an interest of Holmes’ but on a purely intellectual level originally–into someone who throws herself at Sherlock is, if anything, completely regressive, and the added oomph of her being a domme is embarrassingly on-the-nose and crass. It’s more of an example of Moffat not really knowing how to write women, although, to her credit, Pulver isn’t that bad here. Also, the very end of this episode is so outlandish that it borders on parody; it’s ridiculous.

I actually presented an academic paper on, in part, this episode once and smarter people than I have also pointed out its flaws. Unfortunately, it’s required, if only because the first 10 minutes clear up the cliffhanger from season 1.

4.  The Hounds of Baskerville (Season 2, Episode 2)

Arguably the most famous of the Holmes adventures, this take has Holmes and Watson traveling to Dartmoor in Devon, England at the behest of Henry Knight (Russell Tovey of U.K. Being Human fame), whose entire life has been haunted by him witnessing the death of his father 20 years ago by what he remembers as a gigantic hound.

Once there, the pair get drawn into the mystery surrounding the military research base, Baskerville, and using Mycroft’s credentials, the pair break in and uncover sinister, dark experiments.

Director Paul McGuigan takes full advantage of the creepiness of his setting to amp up the tension and surreality present in Mark Gatiss’ script to deliver a compelling work that can hold its own, and surpass, most modern horror movies. My only major complaint is that this episode goes out of its way to make Sherlock seem terrified at key moments of what he’s up against, which really isn’t all that cool. Still very much worth a watch, though.

3. A Study In Pink (Season 1, Episode 1)

The one that starts it all, seeing the famous pair meet, and team up to help solve a strange series of murders in abandoned hotels with strange writing, as well as deal with a suspicious cabby (Phil Davis, who funnily enough is a good guy on the ITV series Whitechapel).

As far as establishing the filmic tone of the series and plunging us right into its sensibilities, this is done to a T. Moffat’s script is tight and compelling (although not without its share of gross sexism). An alternate, 602.-minute version of this, which was the first pilot commissioned by the BBC, is available on the Season 1 DVD and it’s interesting to see how much was compressed in the initial version.

2. The Reichenbach Fall (Season 2, Episode 3)

Yes, the final five minutes is stunning, and basically fueled all of Tumblr with speculation for the last two years. But the episode leading up to it is equally amazing. Stephen Thompson’s script takes viewers from one dizzying bit to another, never slowing down from its breakneck pace.

The title alludes both to the original setting of the Doyle story “The Final Problem” as well as a painting recovered by Sherlock in the opening, which is what makes him famous, much to his annoyance. But Moriarty (Andrew Scott) seems determined to use that fame against him, throwing everyone for a loop in a grand plan to discredit and destroy Sherlock in the depths of his mad obsession.

Scott is absolutely stunning as Moriarty and makes him one of the most deranged psychopaths in TV history. Cumberbatch and Freeman both bring their A-game to make this one of the most devastating episodes of television you’ll ever see.

1. The Great Game (Season 1, Episode 3)

As amazing as “Fall” is, I think “Great Game” is even better. It’s just as tense, as Sherlock and Watson have to not only find Moriarty and stop him, but save each of his victims, who deliver messages from Moriarty to Holmes while at death’s door themselves. Despite a rather confusing fight sequence set in a dimly lit planetarium at one point, this episode still holds my attention. At the final confrontation between our heroes and Moriarty, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time the first viewing and when it ended, I demanded to see the next episode. Absolutely great from start to finish.

Well, this was fun! Agree or disagree with me in comments, and NO SPOILERS for Season 3 (I’m waiting until it ends on PBS to talk about it).

Schedule Change and New Blog

Hey folks, quick update here. Firstly, I wanted to say that Star Trek Saturdays, as part of an effort to make me actually be consistent with updating that series, will be going biweekly, starting this week. I hate to do this, but I want to avoid burnout as much as possible.

Secondly, I want to alert you to something. My school, instead of starting second semester right away in January, has an Interim period throughout the month, where students can take a class on a professor’s passion. Last year, I took a class on film noir; this year, I’m taking a class on games (all kinds except video).

As part of the class, we’re required to create and post to a blog on Blogger every day of class. Mine is called Gaming in Community and you can find it here. The posts are a bit less flashy than what I usually put up here, so expect a rougher style of writing, but if you want a daily dose of my thoughts, go there and check it out!

Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace–Review

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004) Poster

Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace is a show that is definitely not for everyone. It’s not that it’s disturbing or controversial; it’s just surreal and probably too metafictional for most people.

The main conceit of the show is really about the viewing of a show within a show: the framing device for each of the six episodes involves bestselling horror author Garth Merenghi (Matthew Holness) reading to the audience from one of his books, which tend to contain such gems as “Mike stared in disbelief as his hands fell off. From them rose millions of tiny maggots. Maggots!? Maggots. Maggots. Maggots. Maggots. (Checks line)…Maggots. All over the floor of the post office, in Leytonstone.”

He then shows an episode of his commissioned-but-never-shown series from the 1980s, Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace, which he and his publisher Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade) defend in talking head segments interspersed with the footage as a groundbreaking show unappreciated and far ahead of its time.

Darkplace, the show-within-a-show, stars Merenghi as Dr. Rick Dagless M.D., an expert surgeon who is also a stone-cold genius who is brilliant at anything and everything he does, with Learner as his boss, Thornton Reed, who always charges him with solving various problems at the behest of his boss, the unseen Won Ton. Merenghi’s co-stars include actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry) as Dr. Lucien Sanchez, Rick’s macho, lothario best friend and Madeline Wool (Alice Lowe) as Dr. Liz Asher, a ditzy blonde who is also psychic and is easily ignored by everyone else.

Over the six-episode series (which originally ran on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2004), Merenghi and Learner defend episodes of Dagless & Co. dealing with a creepy eye baby, broccoli aliens from space and “Scotch mist” which carries the spirit of vengeful ancient Scottish warriors. The show is a deliberate send-up of ’80s television, with deliberately poor acting (particularly on Learner’s part), little to no continuity between episodes and scenes, downright awful special effects, and ridiculously cheesy synthesizer music.

Overall, the show (with each episode written by Holness and Ayoade and directed by Ayoade) is an entirely different feel from Spaced, evoking not just bad television, but bad television that is infused with the ego of someone like Merenghi, who, throughout the show, is revealed to be entitled and deeply misogynistic among other things. The sheer absurdity of it all, though, is what makes it funny, right down to the way every episode ends with Dagless standing on a roof pondering the events of each episode. Ayoade’s direction is downright natural, sucking you completely into the settings and making the comedy stand out amidst all the low-budget weirdness.

The cast is key to this whole thing, though; luckily, they play the material straight, which only makes things more absured. In particular Berry (whose voice might be familiar as Douglas Reynholm from The IT Crowd)’s unwavering commitment is what sells Sanchez, much the same way Holness disappears into the role of Merenghi, who visually evokes a younger Stephen King, but is such a conceited blowhard who doesn’t realize his own jerkishness that lends such comedy to everything. Ayoade has the toughest challenge because, as Learner playing Thornton, he has to not just be bad, but ridiculously, irresponsibly terrible, The fact that he pulls it off is yet another example of Ayoade’s (best known as Moss from The IT Crowd)considerable talent.

The series has aired on Adult Swim and Syfy in the past, but most of it is available on IMDB and I heartily recommend you check it out.