Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Datalore" (January 18, 1988)

Stardate 41242.4

The Enterprise visits the planet Omicron Theta, the locale where Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) was discovered by the starship Tripoli twenty-six years earlier.

The planet is largely sterile, at this point, but for reasons unknown. Now, the Enterprise is hoping to solve many of the mysteries from Data’s background, including the planet’s unusual fate.

Upon exploring the planet, Data and an away team discover the secret laboratory of Dr. Noonien Soong, Data’s “father.” The team also finds the pieces of a disassembled second android. That android is brought to the Enterprise, re-assembled, and activated.

A physical duplicate of Data, Lore is a wily individual, one with ulterior motives. In fact, he plans to seamlessly replace Data, and then summon the alien that destroyed Omicron Theta -- The Silicon Entity -- to kill the Enterprise crew.

Apparently “Datalore” is not a well-regarded series entry by fans today, and so I’ll just go out on a limb to state that I loved it when it first aired, and still enjoy the episode tremendously.

I understand there are reasons to dislike the story, and I’ll cover those first.

To start with, there’s the whole “Data can’t use contractions” problem. This limitation is reiterated in “Datalore,” but then, at the very end of the episode, he uses a contraction effortlessly (“I’m fine.”)

So, either Data was trolling us and his shipmates all along, or he has suddenly learned to use contractions, and is -- again -- trolling his friends.  Either way, his sudden ability to use contractions goes unexplained and unexplored. In truth, this is simply sloppy editing or storytelling.  

Also, obviously, the premise of “the evil twin” is incredibly hackneyed. We have seen it so many times, on series from Knight Rider to Alias, to the original Star Trek. I would argue, however, that the trope is more plausible in this case, given that Lore and Data are in essence, the same model of android (with some interesting differences).  Basically, it doesn’t stretch credibility that they look identical.

And, of course, this episode once more has Wesley saving the day, while the adults -- all Starfleet graduates -- are too dense to notice that Lore has replaced Data.

But hear me out, please.

Sometimes, a work of art can, via expert execution, escape the particular failings of a narrative.  Sometimes, visual style carries the day.

I therefore submit that “Datalore” is one of the most stylish and well-directed of the early TNG episodes, thanks to Rob Bowman.  The entire episode feels cinematic, from Brent Spiner’s tour-de-force double performance, to the creepy and atmospheric discovery of the laboratory on a dead world.  The action in the finale is well-choreographed, and all the characters -- even the Crystalline Entity -- are underscored by the expressive, even pulse-pounding music of Ron Jones. 

As montage, as film art, “Datalore” works brilliantly.

The final scene in the transporter room is an example of this effective style. It showcases the kind of brutal, fast-paced action that the series has, heretofore, shied away from. Lore threatens to “torch” Wesley with a phaser! He then shoots Dr. Crusher in the arm, and her lab coat actually catches fire as she flees. Finally, Data and Lore engage in hand-to-hand combat, and -- at the last minute -- Data literally pitches Lore onto the transporter platform.

Why do I love this sequence, and this episode so much?

Up until now, the Enterprise-D crew has not faced a powerful, truly malicious enemy. “Q” is playful, and not really out to destroy the crew. The Ferengi are humorous, but largely inept. The Jarada -- never seen -- are easily appeased. The aliens of “Code of Honor” are played as primitives. The virus of “The Naked Now” is played for laughs. The dueling supplicants headed to Parliament in “Lonely Among Us” are seen as both primitive and funny.

So for all intents and purposes, Lore is the first villain in the series who feels like a genuine challenge for the crew.  

He is an operatic nemesis who nearly carries the day, and relishes his own evil. He is Loki to Data’s Thor, and his sadism, at points, is actually terrifying.  There is one moment in the episode when he viciously kicks an unconscious Data, and another in which he threatens Wesley, “the troublesome little man-child” with a fate worse than death.  “Are you prepared for the kind of death of you’ve earned?” he asks.

After so many episodes in which aliens are impressed by humanity’s nobility, this episode showcases a villain who doesn’t care for humans at all, let alone children.

I have read some reviews complaining about the photo/stunt double for Brent Spiner, but I’ll just make an opposite point. At the time that it aired, “Datalore” featured the best, most complex split screen shots ever filmed for television. These scenes are beautifully-composed and acted. Brent Spiner’s performance “against” himself is riveting. This is likely the first episode of the series that reveals fully how Spiner is a brilliant technical actor.  Lore comes across as a wholly separate and unique individual in this story.

I understand that “Datalore” has its problems. For one thing, Worf -- the great warrior -- gets beat-up in hand-to-hand combat once more (he is also defeated in “Hide and Q” and “Conspiracy.”)  But by the same token, “Datalore” is one of the few early first season episodes, beyond “The Big Goodbye” that is confident enough to have fun with its premise and just really go for broke.

“Datalore” features that big, bold score, fun action scenes, and introduces Lore to the same series, at the same time that it provides much-needed information about Data’s history. Even the Silicon Entity proves to be a great addition to canon (and an addition that returns in “Silicon Avatar.”) 

Yes, so many of the dramatic flaws that we see abundantly in the series’ first season are present here, and yet “Datalore” glides effortlessly from moment to moment, audaciously making the most of each opportunity to wow.

In a way, the episode is even intriguing as an homage to “The Enemy Within,” the Star Trek episode that concerned an evil duplicate of Captain Kirk. There, the “impostor” of the captain had to hide the scratches on his face. Here, Lore uses a device to wipe out a facial tic.  The moment is derivative, and yet fascinating in another way. In the 23rd century, Kirk had to contend with an expression of his Id; his dark side. The Next Generation suggests that androids can have an Id too; as “Lore” represent the dark side of artificial intelligence.

This duality is even spelled out in the character names. “Data” means “things assumed as fact based on reason and calculations.”  “Lore” means “mythology,” a story of possibly hyperbolic origin.  You can trust a person of reason, like Data. You can’t trust “Lore,” because his stories are only half-true interpretations of historical events.

This episode is pretty hyperbolic itself. It’s over-the-top and energetic. 

“Datalore” is also, frankly, one of the few first season episodes that is at all entertaining on multiple re-watches. At this point, I would put it second or third in the roster, behind “The Big Goodbye,” but ahead of just about every other episode aired thus far.

Next week: “Angel One.”

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Advert Artwork: Gargoyles (Disney)

Toxic and Troubling Fandoms: A Discussion with John Kenneth Muir

Jeff Fountain of Geek Chic Elite interviewed me recently for a fascinating discussion about toxic and troubling fandoms (particularly as applied to Star Wars, The X-Files, and Star Trek: Discovery).

Here's a snippet:

"People are failing to understand how you use a story and how you use drama as a social vehicle and it’s getting scary to me, as someone who regularly views these things, that a portion of the audience is getting so dumb that you can’t see it. It’s like if you raise the issue of xenophobia, that’s not the same as being xenophobic. If you raise the issue of sexual harassment and Me Too -- of course, that was an underlying part of My Struggle III -- it was commenting on that, it’s of its time, but they don’t understand the difference between commenting on it and being the thing it’s commenting on. It’s really scary to me, it’s like we’re losing the capacity to realize that art has a responsibility, a legacy of commenting on social issues and just because those issues are raised, that doesn’t mean they’re endorsing the issues for heaven’s sake, they’re exploring them. It’s horrifying to me to read these comments on Facebook and Twitter, people just don’t get it."

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Galaxy's Greatest Athlete" (December 11,1975

Two beautiful space aliens -- who are really alien hags -- want to recruit Barney (Chuck McCann) and Junior (Bob Denver) as the galaxy’s greatest athletes in a kind of cosmic Olympic Games.

These space sirens determine that only Honk is actually intelligent, and attempt to seduce Junior, the dumbest of the trio, to their cause.

He participates and wins in different events such as “laser leap,” (a long jump), “astro arm wrestling” and more.

Junior proves victorious, and must battle the “space fuzzy” as the final contest.

The final episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Far Out Space Nuts (1975) doesn’t chart much new territory in terms of theme or plot, but remains enjoyable in the campy manner of much Saturday morning TV from the era (think: The Ghost Busters [1975].) 

As always, the humor remains juvenile, but pleasantly juvenile.

Once more, in “Galaxy’s Greatest Athlete,” we get female characters who appear to be beautiful, but are really hideous aliens, a story idea we have seen before in the series.

Once more, Junior is singled out as the stupidest man in the universe, and recruited to some cause (space piracy, scientific experimentation, or Olympic Games) that he has no desire to be involved with.

Once more, the “space nuts” out-maneuver the “superior” aliens they contend with.

This episode, intriguingly, does rely more heavily on chroma-key technology than most installments of the series do, with Junior (Bob Denver) visually inserted into miniature arenas and sets.  These shots are not visually-accomplished by today’s standards, yet remain inventive for a low-budget 1975 series.

The focus on crazy “futuristic” games at the galactic Olympics here also forecasts similar imaginings in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) episode “Olympiad.”

As this is the final episode of the series, I should offer a summation of the program as a whole.  I’m as surprised as anyone to note this, but I actually enjoyed Far Out Space Nuts more than the previous two Krofft series I covered: Lidsville and the Bugaloos.  

Perhaps it’s all the crazy aliens, or the outer space milieu, or perhaps just the fact that the series arises from an era I am nostalgic about (the immediate pre-Star Wars era; the epoch of Space: 1999), but I’m sad to have reached the end of a program I watched when I was five years old.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "White Horse, Steel Horse" (November 5, 1970)

Working at a potato ranch, Ben Richards (Christopher George) ends up in an armed dispute between motorcycle riding workers, and nefarious ranch owner, George Allison (John Dehner). Allison refuses to pay his workers, and they protest, violently.

When a scuffle between factions ends with the death of a local sheriff, Ben flees to the mountains, but George Allison organizes a vigilante posse to bring him, and the others, to justice.  The “Honor Posse,” as it is called, captures Ben and another cyclist.

Soon, Fletcher (Don Knight) shows up with a (fake) warrant, and attempts to make a deal for possession of the captured Richards.

Written by Star Trek (1966-1969) veterans Gene L. Coon and Stephen Kandel, “White Horse, Steel Horse” is all about the generation gap of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; the war between the Greatest Generation and young anti-establishment, counter-culture. 

What may be surprising is that this episode of The Immortal views the young generation sympathetically, and the older generation as corrupt.

In this case, George Allison, the antagonist, is a white man who holds all the power in his particular situation. He is rich. He owns land. He runs a business. He has powerful friends in law enforcement and the judicial system.

And then, on a dime, this well-connected, wealthy man decides he doesn’t want to pay his workers what he owes them.  

They get angry. 

After acting capriciously, George blames the young workers. He laments children who have been allowed to grow up and “run wild.” He calls the youth “rotten, long-haired scum.” He sees them as a threat to his country too. “It’s like they’re trying to destroy everything,” he says.

Of course, Allison has the right to his viewpoint. The scary thing about his character is how he then manipulates the law (and his connections) to hunt those he cheated. “The courts don’t do their jobs, so we have to,” he tells the members of his vigilante posse. 

In other words, he substitutes his rules for society’s rules. And because of his wealth and power, he can do that.

Ben Richards, in “White Horse, Steel Horse,” stands up for the persecuted ones. He tells Allison that people “have the right to be different, and not be killed for it.”

This was a truth apparent to our society in 1970, but which some Americans seem to have forgotten today, in 2018.  This fact makes this particular episode of The Immortal quite timely, but also quite sad.  It seems we have gone backwards in the last forty years, at least in terms of how we treat one another.

The episode also finds Allison’s grown son turning against him, another sign of the generation gap.  The inference is that with the passing of the generations, a new, better morality will take hold.  Alas, that hasn't really happened either.

The only problem that I see with the episode is that it basically conflates young people, motorcycle gangs and hippies as one demographic. Perhaps at the time, that is how they were all viewed by men like Allison. All made-up, collectively, the counter-culture.

In terms of series continuity, this is another story in which Ben Richards falls in with strangers who need help, but we learn virtually nothing about him. Even the details about Fletcher’s warrant for Richards’ arrest are maddeningly vague. It must be a forged document, but we don’t even know the details of what the fugitive is being charged with.

Despite the lack of character development, not to mention science fiction concepts, we’re still at a point in The Immortal’s canon where the stories are compelling and interesting. This episode serves as a time capsule of a very turbulent time in our culture, if nothing else.

Next week: An Immortal classic: “The Queen’s Gambit.”