Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Anyone looking up the title Hugo on IMDB is going to discover that, since 1990 alone, there have been two TV series, a made-for-video movie, and seven (7) feature films by that name. Perhaps that reveals director Martin Scorsese's lack of insight into the art of giving a film a unique and memorable title, especially given that his latest movie is based on a book with the rather more distinctive title The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Now, a word about the book. I haven't read it yet. I've been keeping my eye on it at bookstores, though. And it seems to be one of those eternal hardcovers that persistently deny gratification to cheapskate bibliophiles, like me, who prefer to wait for the paperback. Brian Selznick's impressive-looking tome-for-tots has been on sale since 2007 and, to date, shows no sign of being released in paperback. I haven't felt so thwarted since A Series of Unfortunate Events (which didn't start appearing in paperback until all thirteen installments had been published in hardcover). Or maybe it's the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo. You see how my mental association runs. One can only hold out for the paperback for so long before one runs out of patience. But in the case of Hugo Cabret, I have managed to stare down the hardcover for nearly five years and, though I would still like to read it, I mean to outstare it.

So, obviously, I had to bend my general rule about reading the book before I see the movie. But then again, I've also started to learn that such a rule may not be all it's cooked up to be. Sometimes it seems that first falling in love with the book merely guarantees that you will hate the movie, even if (in strictly movie terms) it's an excellent film. So my conscience isn't much bothered by the sequence "see the movie, read the book" these days.

I shall spare you a synopsis of the movie because, eventually, I am going to review the book. (Maybe, at that time, I will skip summarizing the story on the rationale that I had already reviewed the movie. Stay tuned!) Let's just say that it's a surprising movie in a lot of ways. For one thing, it's family-friendly. There are no cuss words in it. No heads being blown off. No wise guys getting coked up, laid, or whacked. Both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci are conspicuously absent, to name only a small portion of a top-dollar cast that does not appear in this movie. In fact, the headliner turns out to be Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar for Gandhi almost 30 years ago and, since then, has been steadily working out the Career Damnation which customarily befalls those who peak too early. At least he's been steadily working, though I don't think I've seen any of his work since he played Fagin in 2005's Oliver Twist. Honestly, I kind-of thought he was dead. Rumors of his demise, etc.

Next below Kingsley in the billing is Sacha Baron Cohen, the genius mimic-cum-artfully offensive comedian best known for playing Brüno, Borat, and the Italian barber in Sweeney Todd. Here he plays the police inspector at the Paris train station where most of the film takes place, a performance that was intended to walk a tight-rope between humorous villainy and romantic pathos but which, in the event, comes across simply as strained and obnoxious. Fans of fantasy films will enjoy the rest of the cast, however. Jude Law (A Series of Unfortunate Events) plays Hugo's ill-fated father, and Ray Winstone (Beowulf) his inebriated uncle, who gives the boy a home within the walls of the train station and a purpose in keeping the clocks in order. Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gives the boy a book; Emily Mortimer (who lent her voice talents to the English version of Howl's Moving Castle) distracts the policeman with her flower-girl charms; Frances de la Tour (lately Madame Maxime in the Harry Potter films) unwittingly supplies him with warm croissants. Other Harry Potter alums present include Helen McCrory (a.k.a. Mama Malfoy) as Kingsley's wife, and Richard Griffiths (a.k.a. Uncle Vernon) as a newspaper vendor who distracts the croissant lady with his shy courtship, daily frustrated by a vicious wiener-dog. Playing the title role is young Asa Butterfield, a British youngster who starred in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and who is slated to play Ender Wiggin in an upcoming film on Ender's Game.

Having not read this book, I went to this movie and was surprised to find out exactly why Mr. Scorsese made it, even though it doesn't have any wise guys in it. It's a movie about the movies, looking back fondly (and mysteriously, and movingly) upon the era of the very earliest, silent films, and upon a magician-turned-filmmaker who "made dreams" on the big screen. How an orphaned urchin living inside the walls of a train station, eating stolen croissants, winding huge clocks, and borrowing wind-up-toy components to repair a spooky automaton, brings this long-lost film genius to light is what this movie is about. And while Hugo moves around inside the gears of clocks, you get to move around inside the making of the movies that changed movies from mere sideshow novelties into an art form, and a way of telling stories, without which the present world could hardly be imagined.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

We Bought a Zoo

I was looking up showtimes to see either Hugo or The Muppets when I spotted the title We Bought a Zoo, which I had never heard of. I looked up who was in it and what it was about, and so it was that I arrived at the cinema with the firm intention of seeing this movie. Cut to the end: I walked out of the theater smiling, but with a bit of red under my eyes from wiping tears away.

The story, loosely based on something that really happened, concerns an "adventure journalist" named Benjamin Mee who realizes, six months after his wife's cancer death, that he needs to change some things in his life for his kids' sake. For one thing, his son is having a lot of anger issues, drawing disturbing pictures and getting expelled from school. For another, his little girl is trying too hard to mother her father and brother when she just needs to be a little girl. So he starts looking for a new house, where they can try new schools, a new lifestyle, and move on without the ghost of Mom hanging around. Other than a couple of documentaries, We Bought a Zoo is the first film directed by Cameron Crowe since 2005's Elizabethtown; the director of Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky chose a surprisingly intimate and human story to add to his just-as-surprisingly short list of films.

At the end of a long and fruitless tour of properties for sale, the father and daughter find their dream house. It comes with a catch, though: whoever buys it must also buy the Exotic Animal Park that comes with it. And maintain the staff that takes care of the animals. The Mee family, lacking any experience in zookeeping, plunges into the task. They are immediately in over their head, realizing that lions, tigers, and bears (oh my) will not solve their personal problems, and that they will need a miracle to finance the improvements the state inspector requires before they can open for business.

The Mees go through some rough patches, make no mistake. They have to deal with teenage rebellion and a rocky teen romance; a hero tiger reaching the end of his life; a runaway bear; a crate of snakes (fresh off a plane, no doubt) left open overnight; a bookkeeper who campaigns to turn the staff against the new owners; and the still raw memory of a woman who will be hard to let go of. The turning point, and for my money the best scene in the movie, is when the boy and his father finally have it out in a very loud argument, culminating in the little girl asking, "What was that about the Easter Bunny?"

The show features Matt Damon in the lead role, supported by Colin Ford (lately the "young Sam Winchester" on TV's Supernatural), Elle Fanning (late of Super 8, Scarlett Johansson (lately "Black Widow" in the Marvel Comics films), Thomas Haden Church (of Sideways and Spiderman 3) as the grieving dad's older brother, John Michael Higgins (of A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, etc.) as the buttoned-up inspector, and Angus Macfadyen (of The Cradle Will Rock and Braveheart) as the wild guy who designs wild animal enclosures. If the guy with the monkey perched on his shoulder looks familiar to you, he's Patrick Fugit, whom I last saw playing "Evra the Snake Boy" in Cirque du Freak. If he's not familiar to you, then he isn't.

Basye, Hardy, McCaughrean, Miéville, Stiefvater

Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck
by Dale E. Basye
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the first book of this series, we learned that Heck is "where the bad kids go." So when teen felon Marlo Fauster lands there after being buried in a marshmallow lava flow, it's hard to be surprised. The surprise is that her nerdy but virtuous brother Milton comes along for the ride, darned for eternity. Now the plot has moved on. Milton has found his way back to the land of the living, but he isn't adjusting well to being Resurrection Boy. People think he's a freak and either fear or ridicule him, sometimes both at once. He keeps having spiritual brown-outs, a side effect of crossing over and back again. He inadvertently sends the school bully to his eternal reward, and now a strange girl from a kooky religious cult is after him.

Meanwhile, back in the junior underworld, Marlo has matriculated into the Second Circle of Heck, where kids study such subjects as necroeconomics while being tormented by desire for material possessions. It's a very commercialized sector of the afterlife, with tantalizing commercial breaks promoting the fashion boutiques and outlet stores of Mallvana. Egged on by Rapacia's Vice Principal of Darkness—a giant tin Easter bunny named the Grabbit, whose hollow voice speaks in diabolically cute limericks—Marlo begins to plan the heist of all eternity: a diamond-snatching caper that could wreck the economy of the afterlife... and that's the best-case scenario.

By the end, the two siblings are together again, fighting spork-wielding demons, a cross-dressing bully, crowds of shoppers, and the type of bureaucrats who can really take the fun out of being dead. And all that's besides a parade of fiendish puns, a rogue's gallery of hilariously maladjusted characters, and an ingenious plot to destroy everything, poof! But if you're wondering whether the Fauster siblings make it out of the underworld, you'll have to get the next book in the series. Rumor has it there will eventually be nine of them, corresponding to the nine circles of aitch-ee-double-toothpicks popularized by Dante in The Divine Comedy. At this writing there are only five Circles of Heck, the titles following this installment being Blimpo, Fibble, and Snivel.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 14+

I continue to commute about ten hours a week, and listening to audio books on my car's CD player remains the best way of filling all that mentally wasted time with something that enriches my inner life. Plus, as I learned when I listened to an unabridged reading of War and Peace, it is also a great way to fill the gaps in my reading with books that I really should experience before I die, but might never do so at the rate things are going. Somehow I decided that the next author I needed to broach was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), an English writer who devoted most of his career to poetry, but who is now mainly remembered for his novels set in the fictitious British county of Wessex. His best-known titles, to judge by whether I had heard of them, include Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure. Together with the last of these, Tess of the d'Urbervilles stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy and harsh criticism that spurred Hardy to turn away from fiction at an early stage in his career. The student of English literature must regard this decision as a tragedy similar to, say, the music world's loss when Sibelius quit composing with thirty years left on his meter.

But where would be the fun of studying Brit Lit without sad stories like these? Suicides, drownings, early deaths in the trenches of the Great War, the toll of consumption upon all manner of promising young talent... It's enough to give the reading of great books an extra kick of morbid fascination. And even though Hardy outlived his doomed heroine by some 37 years, this particular book is enlivened by the scandal and (for faithful Christians) intellectual challenge that results from its attacks on Christian morals and beliefs. Among its ironies, however, is the fact that Hardy never openly reveals the syllogisms by which male protagonist Angel Clare apparently knocks Christian dogma into a cocked hat; he leaves them to the imagination, or perhaps to the research of people interested in the thought of that era.

Another irony is that, while the heroine's predicament tears the "conventional morality" of the Victorian era to bloody shreds, the most doctrinaire believers in it (Clare's parents) happen to be paragons of compassion and forgiveness; and as the narrator points out, the crucial point on which the whole tragedy turns is the point when Tess fails in her resolve to appeal to Parson and Mrs. Clare, fails to trust them to be exactly the open-hearted saints they would have been to her.

Tess's predicament stems from a youthful indiscretion, in which her innate purity and virtue were tested past the breaking point by an amoral seducer named Alec d'Urberville. In spite of what you might guess from the title, she never marries him, though she bears a child who does not live long. After living quietly for a few years, Tess tries to start over in life with the sovereign resolution to avoid entanglements with men, but soon after going to work on a dairy farm she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a parson's son whose freethinking tendencies have led him to seek a career in farming rather than the church. Ever conscious that her past could blight their future together, Tess resists Angel's proposal of marriage as long as she can, then delays the wedding day while dithering over whether or how to tell him her whole history.

It finally doesn't come out at all until their wedding night; and when Clare recoils from her, the author makes it clear that the faithful one of the couple is the wife who suffers while Clare looks for answers in Brazil. By the time he realizes that he is the one who has done wrong between them and rushes back to England to reunite with his wife, the thin line between "happily ever after" and unavoidable tragedy has already been crossed. Exactly what shape that tragedy will take, and how much of an emotional wreck it will leave you, will only become clearly apparent in the superbly paced final pages of the book.

I listened to this book as read by the amazing Anna Bentick, who brought a distinctive intonation and regional dialect to each and every character, male and female. Her voice, and Hardy's words, brought vividly to life a tragedy that at times reminded me of folk tales and myths, at others of lyric opera (I even idly considered sketching an outline of a libretto for one). And though my one-sentence review of this book will henceforth be that "I have been emotionally assaulted and battered by Thomas Hardy," I can't quite shake the idea that the next audio book I borrow from the library will be something by the same author.

Peter Pan in Scarlet
by Geraldine McCaughrean
Recommended Ages: 8+/-

Confession time: In my review of J. M. Barrie's book Peter Pan and Wendy, I got a few chronological details wrong. First of all, the character of "Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" appeared first in a 1902 novel for adults (in a passage later excerpted and published as a standalone book called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens), then in a 1904 play under the title set off in quotes above, and finally in the book I reviewed, published in 1911 and also titled (in its various editions) Peter and Wendy and, simply, Peter Pan. What happened in 1906 (the year referenced in my previous review) was that Mr. Barrie donated the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. And so it was in 2005, in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of that gift, that GOSH announced a search for the author to write the first-ever "authorized sequel" to Peter Pan.

It's not as if there hadn't already been oodles of adaptations, spinoffs, and sequels, including a famous stage musical (which has been filmed for television several times), a bunch of animated films, a Spielberg movie, and a whole series of prequel novels by American writers Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (starting with 2004's Peter and the Starcatchers). But even while debate continues as to whether the copyright on Peter Pan has expired, there's something to be said for being chosen, authorized, and published by the trustees of the charity to which Barrie dedicated the book.

On the strength of her story outline and a sample chapter, Geraldine McCaughrean won that honor. And though the Barry-Pearson franchise is more vibrantly packaged and a roaring success, it seemed right that I should read this sequel first. Now that I have done it, I have doubts about the brainparts—not, mind you, of the Great Ormond Street trustees who entrusted their centennial sequel to McCaughrean, nor of the author herself—rather, doubts about the mental wellness of the reviewers who (according to my research, notably on Wiki) gave her book a "mixed but generally positive" critical reception. That's just absurd. What McCaughrean wrote is at least the equal of the original Peter Pan. In all likelihood, any critic who doesn't think so has let his memory of Barrie's actual work become colored by the spectacles of stage, screen, and high-gloss publishing that have accumulated on it like layers of tinted transparency, where each successive incarnation of Peter Pan must outdo all before it in blockbuster appeal—whereas this book is simply a lovely, charming, delightful children's book, clothed in whimsical drawings by Scott M. Fischer and a beautiful cover painting by Tony DiTerlizzi, exactly in the spirit of the 1911 book on which it builds.

Such a feat must have come natural to Geraldine McCaughrean (pronounced like "McCorkran"), author of dozens of books in which Bible stories, legends, myths, and historical events are retold and/or fictionalized for younger readers. The winner of a Carnegie Medal, three Whitbread Children's Book Awards, a Michael L. Printz Award, and numerous other honors, McCaughrean will probably be best remembered by future generations for her singular contribution to the Peter Pan mythos. For it is an original tale that reunites nearly all of the original characters in a way that combines lighthearted whimsy with touching pathos in the same elusive, magical proportions that made the first Peter Pan unforgettable.

The opening of the book finds the Lost Boys and Wendy all grown up, sometime after World War I, raising their own kids and moving on with their lives after having been adopted and educated by the kindly Darling family. But into their adulthood intrudes a series of thrilling dreams, from which they wake with objects from Neverland in their beds: cutlasses, alarm clocks, and the like. Getting together, they discuss what this may mean. It seems that something terrible has happened back in Neverland: Time has begun to pass where it ought to stand still. So, by means too wonderful for me to spoil here, they return to childhood and fly back to see what's up with Peter, the forest, the lagoon, and whatnot. While they find Peter very much the same as ever, everything else in Neverland has changed. Summer has moved on to autumn. Bones of mermaids and a crocodile litter the seashore. And a mysterious "ravelling man" has, with his menagerie of fierce beasts, somehow taken up residence in Peter's magical neighborhood.

Even worse disasters lie ahead, testing the survival of Neverland, the friendship of the boys, and the eternal youth of Peter. It is a swashbuckling adventure that combines lovable nonsense with scary suspense, in which touches of silly humor to make children giggle alternate with splashes of poetic brilliance to make grownups gasp with wonder. And finally the story wraps up in a way that leaves the ground both changed and open to another sequel. If GOSH doesn't mean to wait another hundred years for the next "authorized sequel," they couldn't do better than to give that assignment to McCaughrean too.

Un Lun Dun
by China Miéville
Recommended Ages: 12+

Weird things have started happening to London schoolgirls Zanna and Deeba. Well, they're happening to Zanna really; Deeba is only concerned because they are best friends. First there was a cloud that looked like Zanna. Then something weird came in the mail. Now animals are bowing to her, strangers are approaching her as though she were a celebrity and not just an ordinary girl. And then things start to get really serious. The word "Shwazzy" has been whispered concerning Zanna—possibly connected to a similar-sounding French word that means "chosen." She has started to show signs of strange power. Something dangerous seems to be after her. And then comes the night when a broken umbrella crawls out of a neighbor's garbage and, moving all by itself, appears to look in at Zanna's bedroom window. The two girls start to follow the umbrella as it makes its retreat, and before they catch up to it, they find their way into an alternate London—UnLondon, by name—the place where obsolete people and things go when our dimension no longer has room for them.

Little by little, Zanna is welcomed as a long-awaited hero whose exploits will save UnLondon in a war to come soon. But even with a talking book filled with prophecies about her and all kinds of signs proclaiming her the Shwazzy, Zanna proves unequal to her first encounter with the enemy: the dark, hungry intelligence known, for surprisingly straightforward reasons, as the Smog. Since air quality standards were passed in the U.K., London's heavy and sometimes deadly smog has become a thing of the past. Which, don't you know, makes it a very current thing in UnLondon, where enough of it has accumulated, with who-knows-what chemical ingredients, to form a conscious mind bent on burning, inhaling, and absorbing the knowledge in everyone and everything, everywhere. Only the Shwazzy can stop it, says the Book; but even the Book is at a loss when Zanna is defeated, and nearly dies, in her first battle against the Smog.

To Deeba's relief, the girls go back to their own London, and a ruse to draw the Smog's evil tendrils out of Zanna's lungs works, saving the Shwazzy to fight another day. Only... all her memories of UnLondon seem to have gone out with the smoke in her lungs. Deeba realizes that only she knows about that other world, and that she can't talk about it with anybody—especially Zanna. And then Deeba discovers that UnLondon is in more trouble than anybody suspected, and somebody has to go back. Who else is there but Deeba herself?

And so saving UnLondon from the fiendish plans of the Smog and its creatures becomes a quest for the Un-Chosen One. And when none of the authorities in UnLondon will believe what she has found out about the Smog and his allies, Deeba has to go it alone, on the run from friend and foe alike. With a no-nonsense attitude united to a warm and gentle heart, Deeba wins over a strange and unexpected group of companions, and follows a totally unconventional strategy—even by the standards of a city built on weirdness and whimsy. It is, after all, a city with flying buses, ghosts, giant insects, words come to life, a man with a caged bird for a head, and sun with a hole in its center, like a doughnut.

It has a Gothic church haunted by black windows (eight wooden legs and a snapping sash window). It has a band of stealth fighters disguised as trash cans (known locally as binja). It has a boy who can pass through walls, a bus conductor who can also conduct electricity, a man who wears clothing made out of books, and a neighborhood where everybody lives on the rooftops (though, to be on the safe side, the buildings are only a few inches tall). These are only a sample of the wonderful oddities Deeba finds in UnLondon, but oddest of all... she is the one the Smog fears most.

I won't spoil this remarkable and exciting book any further. It is enough to know that it holds a distinguished place among the growing band of books set in "other Londons," and such places. British author China Miéville, whose image inside the back flap of this book is almost the exact opposite of what his name led me to expect, considers himself a writer of "weird fiction," or the "New Weird" (as distinguished from the "Old Weird" of Lovecraft, Bierce, and the like). Many of his books have won awards, including a Hugo Award, two Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and a World Fantasy Award. Other acclaimed titles by China Tom Miéville include The Scar, King Rat, The City & the City, and Embassytown.

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie
by Maggie Stiefvater
Recommended Ages: 14+

Having survived the summer of faerie-born peril depicted in Lament, best friends James and Dee begin a new school year at a special prep school for musically gifted kids. On some level they know, even before this sequel begins, that Thornking Ash has another reason to exist: a mission to protect young people with a sensitivity to magic; to prevent them from being snatched by the Fair Folk—who, as James and Dee know too well, don't play fair at all.

But no one—not even an English prof who used to be the Faerie Queen's consort—is prepared for the amount of danger these two, and others, are in the year James and Dee enter Thornking Ash. As a peerless bagpiper, James can hardly find a teacher to develop his skill, let alone a place to fit in. And for her own mysterious reasons, Dee is even more socially and emotionally cut off, even from the boy who loves her. Both of these problems, together with Dee's terrifying talent for drawing wild spirits to her, expose them and everyone on campus to a level of danger no one living has seen before.

For one, James has become the menu choice of a deadly muse-spirit called the leanan sidhe. Nuala's standard procedure is to offer a handsome young artist a bright, hot, fast-burning blast of creative energy, followed (by way of exchange) by an early death as she drains the life right out of him. But somehow, things are different with James. Maybe it's the fact that he has already pulled through a nearly fatal encounter with faeries and knows well enough to say No. Or maybe it's just plain love. Nuala finds herself weakening, starving herself for this boy. This could be a disaster, even for a being who must burn to ashes and be reborn every sixteen years, and who has a date with fire this very Halloween.

Meanwhile, something fishy is going on with Dee, but she isn't talking about it to anybody, especially James. It puts a real strain on their lifelong friendship, and it's one more thing for him to worry about. Whatever is going on, the new Faerie Queen seems to be planning something really bitchy for Halloween, and probably bloody into the bargain. And the Lord of the Dead has been singing at dusk nearly every night as autumn progresses, heard not only by James and Dee but by others as well. James's roommate Paul says he hears a list of people who are going to die soon, and all their names are on it. And when James finds out what he has to do to save both Nuala and Dee on the night all Faerie breaks loose, it isn't hard for him to believe what Paul says.

Here is another quick, intense novel of music, magic, teen romance, and all the reasons we should know better than to wish we could see fairies. They're dangerous, as you can learn from this book's spin on Celtic folk tales. It's a book that answers the question that might niggle at the back of your brain after you read Lament: How can someone with Dee's powers ever be safe from the deadly Fair Folk? Or maybe the question was: How could her Aunt Delia get away with her disgusting betrayal? Both of these questions, and others you haven't even thought of asking, will be answered amid this book's steadily building suspense and the emotional mangle of its climax.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Philharmonic Friday, Symphony Saturday

The weekend before Thanksgiving was a musical weekend for me. Friday night, I accepted a last-minute invitation from some friends to attend the St. Louis Philharmonic; while, for Saturday night, I had a subscription ticket to the St. Louis Symphony!

On Friday's Philharmonic program were the tequila-soused debauchery of Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico, the romantic charm and rhythmic musical palindromes of Zoltan Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite, the brooding melodrama of Giuseppe Verdi's overture to La Forza del Destino, and the scintillating LOUDNESS of Ottorino Respighi's Feste Romane. All these were conducted by the Philharmonic's longtime music director, Robert Hart Baker.

The Philharmonic, a semi-amateur campus/community band, only performs four programs a year. This is only my second time going to it. Having looked at their program for the season, I'm sad to have missed them doing Haydn's "Miracle" Symphony in October—I'm partial to anything Haydn wrote in D major. (Yeah, OK. I'm weird.) I should try to plan to go to their concerts later this season. In March they are doing Beethoven's 9th and Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer. In May they have a piece by Walton, Hindemith's Metamorphoses, and Shostakovich's 6th. I love all of these pieces (except the Walton, which I haven't heard; though after getting to know his symphonies, I am excited to learn more of his works).

As for this particular concert, I liked the pieces. The performances had some effective touches, and it's obvious that the Philharmonic is a well-liked community group that loves to play. Nevertheless I would be a dishonest reviewer if I didn't note that at times the players' lack of precision and unity created an occasional "blurring" effect around the edges of the musical lines. Since my ticket was a gift I have nothing to complain about. So please don't take it as bitchiness when I add that I what made me most happy about the Philharmonic concert was the sense that the Symphony was really going to sound awesome the following night. The latter, strictly professional group has the advantage of being under the hot lights every weekend—among other things. Nevertheless, my final impression of Friday's concert was to be struck by the genius of its programming. It really came full circle as both the beginning and the end depicted drunken revelry in a Latin culture.

Tonight at the Symphony, Maestro David Robertson revealed the baroque beauty of Henry Purcell (Chacony in G minor), the virtuosity of a local young artist playing a Luciano Berio violin showpiece (Corale), and the all-around awesomeness of Anton Bruckner's 7th Symphony. I have never heard a Bruckner symphony performed live before. It was easy to get swept up in the passion, yet the performance was amazingly detailed, bringing out lines and facets that can so easily be obscured by the massive blocks of brass and the sheer, overwhelming proportions of the piece.

I have also never knowingly been in the presence of Wagner tubas before, but Movement II of the Bruckner most effectively ended with the sound of four of them, combined with four French horns and otherwise accompanied only by the sketchiest of strings, in a musical postscript inspired by news of the death of Richard Wagner. Wow.

A Bruckner orchestra both looks and sounds different from any other, with the brass "in stereo"—horns and Wagner tubas at stage right; trombones, tubas, and trumpets stage left, and the woodwinds in a block between them—and the 1st and 2nd violins at opposite ends of the stage, violins and cellos clutched between them, and the basses in a long row against the upstage wall.

I could almost have been mesmerized just watching the orchestra perform in this configuration, even without the tremendous piles of harmony and far-flung themes that Bruckner gave them. Every moment was my favorite. The SLSO really DID sound great, and not just in contrast to last night's Philharmonic... though I was impressed enough by their performance of the "cock-a-doodle" Scherzo to note that, in spite of the persistent dotted rhythms that must grow exponentially harder to keep together as the movement goes on and on, I sensed absolutely no blurring or fuzziness around the edges of the sound. The orchestra's precision was superhuman!

To explain why the orchestra's configuration impressed me... usually, in the States at least, the strings are fanned out from stage right to stage left in order from 1st Violins to 2nd Violins to Violas to Cellos, with the basses bunched up at far stage left, the woodwinds stretched out in one or two rows just upstage of the strings & the brass against the upstage wall, with timpani & percussion fitted into whatever space is left. Any deviation from that must be done with some serious acoustic considerations in mind.

Another noteable feature of the Bruckner orchestra is the sheer weight of brass in proportion to other sections. 4 Wagner tubas & 5 French horns, 4 trombones, 1 bass tuba & 3 trumpets are HUGE when, pinched between them, the woodwind choir consists of 1 pair each of oboes, bassoons, flutes, and clarinets. Another acoustic distinctive is the fact that there were fully eight (8) string basses up there, an enormous congregation of that instrument given that the other string sections were in proportion to an average-sized romantic orchestra.

Also, I didn't mention the timpani, which are important in Bruckner's 7th because of the numerous "general pauses" in which the only thing happening is a quiet throb on a kettledrum. Three of these drums were wedged into the corner at stage left between the trumpets and the 2nd violins.

This big orchestra contrasts greatly with what was on stage at the top of the program, when Robertson plus a five-part string orchestra made up exactly 30 bodies on stage, for Purcell's Chacony. The Berio piece added a few additional string players, plus three French horns who—in another acoustic novelty—were divided onto opposite sides of the stage, two at stage left and one at stage right.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Voyager Season 3

My Netflix queue has finally begun (EDIT: and ended) to cough up Season 3 of Star Trek: Voyager (1996-97), one four-episode DVD at a time. But at least this gives me bite-size chunks I can blog on without the despair and creative paralysis that results from having to write about the whole season in one sitting (as witnessed by the fact that my review of Farscape Season 4 is still, at this writing, in "Post in Progress" mode, and the fact that I have been ready to blog on Babylon 5 Season 5 for ages but haven't even begun).

What's special about Season 3 of the third Star Trek spinoff series? Well, to start with, it's the last season featuring the show's original cast, carrying the initial formula for Voyager adventures to its furthest development in 26 hours of (mostly) top-quality episodes. Specifically, it is the last full season to feature Jennifer Lien as Kes, who was subsequently written out—unfairly, in my opinion—to make room for Jeri Ryan's Seven of Nine. I would have liked to see a Star Trek series with four babes on it (counting Janeway and Torres), fulfilling the producers' original plan to cut Harry Kim—aborted when actor Garrett Wang, for all his woodenness, made People magazine's annual list of the most beautiful people. But anyway, for these 26 episodes you can have your Kes and hate Harry too.

Voyager Season 3 also brings back Q for the second of his three crossover visits to this series. As the show leaves the plug-ugly Kazons behind forever, it reintroduces such "Alpha Quadrant" menaces as the Ferengi and the Borg. In a nod to the franchise's 30th anniversary, it revives characters from The Original Series in a surprisingly creative way. It takes vast strides in developing the character of The Doctor, as well as of Kes (who gets a lot of attention this year); and in a surprising number of episodes, it explores a topic of great import for deep-space travelers: potential problems arising in the holodeck. Issues such as the treatment of prisoners and cultural minorities, bio-ethics and the origins debate, are touched upon with varying degrees of sensitivity; and in one episode, the show takes a surprisingly un-Star Trek position on the relationship between science and religion. The characters are menaced by viruses, doppelgangers, telepaths, time travelers, homicidally fertile women, evil spirits, and their own sexual urges, to say nothing of first encounters with such future enemies as the Krenim and Species 8472.

Guest stars this season include Brad Dourif (making a touching exit from his recurring role as disturbed Betazoid Lon Suder); Bruce Davison (of the X-Men film franchise); popular comedians Chip Esten (of Whose Line Is It, Anyway?) and Sarah Silverman (of Saturday Night Live, etc.); Ed Begley, Jr. (of St. Elsewhere fame); Concetta Tomei (of China Beach); John Rhys Davies (of The Lord of the Rings); a very young Lindsey Haun (late of TV's True Blood); Wendy Schaal (of The 'burbs and TV's American Dad!); Robert Pine (of TV's CHiPs); Len Cariou (the original Sweeney Todd, late of TV's Blue Bloods); Harve Presnell (of Fargo); and, of course, George Takei and Grace Lee Whitney from the original Star Trek.

Basics, Part II concludes the cliffhanger ending of Season 2, where the majority of the Voyagers were left stranded on an inhospitable planet while Seska and the Kazon made off with their ship. While the crew tries to find a way to survive in a world short on nutrition and long on dangers (such as man-eating monsters, hostile stone-agers, and erupting volcanoes), the challenge of re-taking the ship falls to the unlikely trio of Tom Paris, the holographic Doctor, and the Betazoid psychopath who has been under house arrest since Season 2's "Meld." Oooh! Could this be the last one they ever made? Not likely! Within the allotted 45 minutes, the tables are turned, Seska (whose lovechild proves not to be Chakotay's) is killed, the tribesmen become friendly, and they all sail off into blessedly Kazon-free space.

Flashback celebrates the 30th anniversary of Trek with a deliciously weird exploration of Tuvok's unconscious mind. For some reason, a blue cloud of space gas triggers a repressed childhood memory of losing his grip and allowing a little girl to fall to her death. This traumatic memory wreaks havoc on the Vulcan's brain, requiring the most trusted person in his life—Captain Janeway—to join him in a mind-meld and help him re-integrate the suppressed memory into his conscious mind. Funnily enough, though, every time they attempt this, they are pulled into a memory from Tuvok's "first" Starfleet career, when he was the Vulcan race's nearest equivalent to a wild and rebellious young man, and when his first assignment was as a science officer on the USS Excelsior commanded by good old Sulu. The setting for this psychological mystery happens to be something that went on behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, but it actually turns out to have nothing to do with Captain Sulu, First Officer Janice Rand, or Klingon Commander Kang (in an encore appearance by Michael Ansara). So seeing them again is pure gravy!

The Chute is the one where Harry and Tom get flushed down the toilet of an alien society, a toilet which (until now) has never backed up. Their alleged crime is an act of terrorism, for which they have been convicted based on flimsy evidence and unscrupulous methods of interrogation. Their prison has only one way in (the titular chute) and no way out, thanks to a deadly forcefield which, even after Harry Kim disables it, turns out to have nothing to do with the reason nobody has ever escaped. Worse, all the prisoners have been implanted with a bioelectric "clamp" which causes them to become increasingly savage, apparently as a way of controlling the prison population by keeping everybody at each other's throats. In spite of the Captain's pleading with the planet's leader (played by a brusque Robert Pine), there seems to be no chance of getting them released—until Janeway hooks up with the actual bombers who have been hatching prison-break scenarios of their own. The episode ends with Harry & Tom's friendship passing a major test. Harry: "Don't you remember when I almost killed you?" Tom: "All I remember is you saying, 'This is my friend. Nobody touches him.'"

The Swarm is the one where the Doctor begins to lose his memories, and the option of rebooting his program (so that he has to start developing his personality all over again from Day One) seems to be the only way to stop his technobabble from degrading completely. Robert Picardo gets to play opposite himself in some scenes, as a diagnostic program designed in the image of their common creator tries to help fix the doc's program. Notable as the first time the acronym EMH (for "Emergency Medical Hologram") is used, this episode also features an "A story" in which the ship has to sneak across the territory of an extremely aggressive alien species who use pain-inflicting weapons and lots of itty-bitty ships to make sure nobody trespasses on their space. But, frankly, that "main plot" seems far less memorable than the Doctor's "subplot," perhaps a sign that this wasn't one of the best-written episodes of the year. And perhaps unfortunately, the writers did not see fit to carry over this episode's development in the Doctor's personality into later episodes.

False Profits reveals the fate of the two Ferengi, Arribor and Kol, last seen disappearing into a one-way wormhole in TNG's "The Price." In the seven years since then, the greedy pair have set themselves up as gods on a world where a prophetic poem conveniently predicts the coming of such "heavenly sages." Nobody familiar with Ferengi mores will be surprised to learn that they have abused their power for their own material gain, pushing their innocent subjects to develop their instincts for greed and high-pressure salesmanship. Only by selling the shoes off their feet can the Voyagers get enough information to combat these untouchable scoundrels. In an episode equally compounded of Prime Directive-based ethical dilemmas and over-the-top humor, the hew-mons (plus one Talaxian disguised as a Ferengi) eventually find a way to turn the song's prophecy against the Ferengi. Nevertheless the latter pair provide a repeat performance of their wormhole-aided disappearing trick, dashing the Voyagers' latest hope of getting home fast.

Remember features an alien race whose telepathic abilities enable B'Elanna to relive, in vivid detail, memories of a young woman's most tragic mistake, and the guilty secret of an entire society. It starts with intensely erotic dreams in which B'Elanna experiences love through the point of view of a young Enaran woman named Korenna, who is torn between her passion for an ill-fated young man and her loyalty to her father (played by Bruce Davison, as pictured here). Meanwhile, Enaran society is similarly torn between the forces of technological progress and a luddite sect known as the Regressives. Korenna's young man tells her that he is being deported on her father's orders, along with a bunch of Regressives; and further, that nobody has heard a peep out of the colony where they are being forcibly resettled. But her father manipulates Korenna into rejecting the rumor that the deportees are actually being exterminated, and she falls so far under his spell as to cheer at the brutal execution of her own lover on a charge of treason. After experiencing all of these memories at considerable risk to her own life and at the cost of the life of the older Enaran woman who has shared them with her, B'Elanna goes on the war path, hoping to expose the crime the Enarans committed against their own people. But due to the lack of physical evidence, she must content herself with sharing the memories that have been given to her with a young Enaran woman who agrees to consider them and investigate things for herself. It's a moving and impassioned episode that viewers will long remember, no pun intended.

Sacred Ground is the one where Capt. Janeway undertakes a spiritual quest to save the soul of Kes. The girl is in a coma, her chances of recovery fading, since being zapped by a natural energy field in a shrine sacred to the Nechani monks. The only person known to have recovered from such an injury was saved when his father appealed to the ancestral spirits and took responsibility for his son's trespass. This Janeway intends to do for Kes, reconciling the religious pilgrimage with her scientific outlook by reasoning that whatever ritual enables her to approach the spirits without harm, will involve some kind of biochemical change which can then be applied to Kes to cure her. But things don't go as planned, especially as the entire ordeal Janeway goes through proves to be completely meaningless. Without spoiling the entire episode, I'll just say that I found it really interesting, given Trek's secularist outlook, that Janeway would end up admitting (to herself, at least) that something cannot be explained by science. The episode guest-stars Harry Groener (TNG's "Tin Man") as the Nechani magistrate, Becky Ann Baker (TV's Freaks and Geeks) as Janeway's spiritual guide, and Estelle Harris (George's mother on Seinfeld) as one of an adorable trio of "ancestral spirits."

Future's End, Part I is the first part of a double episode guest-starring Sarah Silverman (pictured here) and Ed Begley, Jr. (next picture down). The Voyagers' time-travel adventure begins when a Federation ship from the 29th century attacks them, its Captain Braxton claiming that he has evidence showing that Voyager caused an accident in his time that wiped out the entire solar system. Thanks to some technobabble or other, both ships get sucked into a time warp, arriving 30 years apart on 20th-century Earth. When the Voyagers arrive in the mid 1990s, they learn that the technology boom of our era was the result of an unscrupulous businessman reverse-engineering components from the time-ship whose crash he had witnessed in the 1960s. Henry Starling, CEO of Chronowerx Inc., has just the right lack of morals to use 29th century technology to amass power and wealth for himself, and the weapons to prevent the Voyagers from carrying out their duty to prevent further contamination of the timeline. And when they finally track down the wreck that was Captain Braxton, he informs them that what they have already done is to set in motion the train of events that will destroy the world in his century.

Future's End, Part II concludes the Voyager's two-part visit to the mid-1990s by dragging everyone out of their comfort zone. The Doctor acquires his mobile holo-emitter thanks to a piece of purloined 29th-century technology. Harry spends time in the captain's chair. Chakotay and B'Elanna get banged up and held prisoner by libertarian yahoos. Tom Paris' enthusiasm for all things 20th Century falls short of enabling him to sell his cover as a secret agent with the pretty girl. With the integrity of the past at stake and a future holocaust to prevent, the Voyagers pull off some of their most complex, role-stretching derring-do yet. After a satisfying amount of shooting, kissing, and blowing stuff up, the Voyagers finally get to the point where the time-travel storyline comes full circle and the crazy time cop from the future needs only three words to explain why he can't just drop them off at Earth in the 24th century: "Temporal Prime Directive."

Warlord, the first episode this season that I can specifically remember having seen before, is especially memorable as the episode that best brings out the sexy, butch side of Jennifer Lien's acting talent. A brush with a dying alien in sick bay leads to Kes being possessed by the spirit of a 200-year-dead ruler who was overthrown by his own people. Now Tieran wants to stage a political comeback through another remorseless bout of killing and conniving. His plans are complicated by the fact that his wife isn't into chicks, but also doesn't care to see him pledge his hand to the scion of the planet's ruling dynasty. Even more troubling, however, is the fact that Kes's consciousness continues to fight Tieran's possession, wearing away at the strongman until a climactic standoff between their two personalities, just before the Voyagers beam down with a crack squad and a piece of technobabble designed to neuter the dogs of war. Guest stars include four-time Trek alien Brad Greenquist as Tieran's rival for the throne, Galyn Görg (of DS9's "The Visitor") as Tieran's wife, Karl Wiedergott (of Enterprise's "Dear Doctor") as Tieran's would-be husband, and Leigh J. McCloskey (of DS9's "Field of Fire") as Tieran himself.

The Q and the Grey is the second of three "Q" episodes in Voyager's seven seasons. In this clever and hilarious installment, Q importunes Capt. Janeway (a.k.a. "Kathy") with persistent romantic advances. Eventually he reveals that he wants to mate with her in order to enrich the Q gene pool with human DNA. He thinks this is necessary to heal the Q civil war which has erupted since the events of Season 2's "Death Wish," but his main squeeze for the past four billion years doesn't take kindly to the competition. Nevertheless the She-Q must come to the aid of the Voyagers when the war between the Q comes to a potentially galaxy-threatening crisis, while He-Q uses the American Civil War as a metaphor to allow "Kathy" and the crew to experience the Q Continuum. Suzie Plakson (whose other Trek roles included a Vulcan, an Andorian, and most famously the Klingon K'Ehleyr) plays Q's mate, while the late Harve Presnell plays the "Colonel" of the opposing Q faction.

Macrocosm is the one where Janeway and Neelix rendezvous with the ship after trade negotiations with the touchy, gesturally-fastidious Tak Tak... but Voyager doesn't show up. They track her down and find the ship drifting, its crew incapacitated by an airborne virus that has mutated into gigantic, stinging, tentacly monsters (example pictured). After Neelix gets taken, the Captain has to eradicate these beasties with no help except from the Doctor, who for all his holographicness is also at risk because the critters are attracted to the heat given off by his technobabble. Together they plan an ingenious ruse to round up the virus so that it can be "bug bombed" off the ship, just in time to keep their new Tak Tak friend from destroying Voyager in the name of public health. Three-time Trek guest Albie Selznick plays the flamboyant alien.

Fair Trade is the episode where Neelix's role as the ship's guide ends, as the ship reaches the Nekrit Expanse, beyond which he has never traveled. Desperate to find a map to this dangerous region of space, and influenced by a seedy old friend whom he owes big-time, Neelix gets himself into hot water with a murder investigation on one side and a narcotics smuggling ring on the other. His solution to the conundrum is adorably reckless, but the cost is one of Captain Janeway's "I am so disappointed in you" harangues that, frankly, doesn't seem to have its usual effect on the Talaxian. The guest cast includes Carlos Carrasco (pictured), a three-time DS9 guest who twice played a Klingon; Alexander Enberg, who had previously played a different Vulcan crewman on the Enterprise-D, in the first of his eight Voyager appearances as Vulcan Ensign Vorik; and James Horan, who played five characters across four Trek spinoffs, as the plug-ugly bad guy.

Alter Ego begins with Harry Kim making a shocking request of Tuvok: to teach him to suppress his emotions. The reason is that he has fallen in love with a holodeck character. Tuvok's interest in the case grows to the point where he alienates the holochick's affections, hurting Harry's feelings and winning for himself a pscyho girlfriend who—surprise!—turns out to have the power to control the ship. Marayna wants Tuvok so bad that she threatens to destroy Voyager if he doesn't say he'll be hers. Eventually the Voyagers locate the real Marayna (pictured), lurking on a space station that controls the plasma-and-light show of a fancy nebula, but she only relents when Tuvok beams down and reasons with her until she cries Uncle. Tuvok suggests that she try taking a vacation and socializing with her own people once in a while; she says this is OK for her, but will he always be alone? The look on Tuvok's face as this question hits him, at the same time as a transporter beam, lingers even through the final scene in which Tuvok offers Harry Kim lessons in the Vulcan equivalent of chess (which looks rather like that space-needle game in The Man Who Knew Too Little).

Coda features Len Cariou, late of TV's Blue Bloods, as the ghost of Captain Janeway's father. Or, at least, as something nasty that tries to pass himself off as the same. Before we meet him, however, the Captain has a weird series of experiences, like being trapped in a time loop in which each iteration ends with her death. In the most gruesome version of her death, the Doctor cold-bloodedly euthanases her after diagnosing her with the Vidiian phage. (Yes, for one episode, the Vidiians are back—only not in reality). These loops turn out to be a series of hallucinations while Chakotay tries to revive Kathryn after she is killed in a shuttle crash. Like a ghost, Janeway witnesses the crew's attempts to locate whatever phase of reality her consciousness has landed on (because, when you're the main character in a Star Trek series, death is really hard to accept). Only when everyone seems to accept the inevitable does Admiral Janeway appear, beckoning to his daughter to follow him into the light. But she insists on hanging back, claiming that she wants to be there at least in spirit to see what happens to her crew. As the Admiral grows more insistent, the Captain begins to see flashes of another reality in which she is still at the site of the crash, where her crew is still trying to revive her. She realizes that her "father" is actually some kind of alien entity who needs her to agree to go with him so that he can feed off her energy at the point of death. Like I said: nasty.

Blood Fever is the episode that follows the logic of Classic Trek's episode "Amok Time" to its deliriously sexy, violent, obvious conclusion. Ensign Vorik (pictured), in only his third episode, asks B'Elanna to be his mate and then attacks her when she turns him down. He turns out to be in the throes of pon farr, the Vulcan male's every-seventh-year birds-and-bees thing, which is so ludicrously primal that its logic-proud victims can't bear to talk about it. Which is probably why, if they don't cleanse themselves of the resulting "blood fever," and fast, they can actually die from it. Now, it's hard enough on Vorik, whose choices include going home to Vulcan to be with his chosen mate (strike one; not possible), finding another mate closer by (strike two; rejected), and resolving his passion either through meditation or cathartic violence. They might have called it "Green Blood, Blue Balls." But then it starts to look as though the pon farr has telepathically infected B'Elanna somehow. This leads to awkwardness on an away mission involving tremory tunnels, paranoid aliens, and an uncharacteristically gentlemanlike Tom Paris, who refuses to take advantage of B'Elanna no matter how hard she begs. I sense that you're having a hard time believing me, so obviously there's no point in going on to describe the Doctor's foray into holographic pimping, the gleefully low-tech "let Tom and B'Elanna go off into the bushes and make out" solution to her neurochemical crisis, and the way Tuvok shrewdly plays the "tradition" card to get Chakotay to allow Vorik and Torres to fight like animals. Amidst all this fun, it may be hard to catch two bits of foreshadowing at the end of the episode: one signaling a future relationship between Tom and B'Elanna, and the other hinting at a Borg problem to come.

Unity carries the threat of upcoming encounters with the Borg a step nearer, when Chakotay and an ill-fated Ensign follow a distress call to a planet where humans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and other aliens live together, though not altogether at peace. At first they claim to have been abducted by aliens and dropped off on this ruined world to fend for themselves; then they admit to having been assimilated by the Borg. Their cube—which, meanwhile, the Voyagers have discovered drifting dead in space—was zapped by some kind of cosmic power surge, severing them from the Collective. Those drones who survived took refuge on the nearest inhabitable planet. Even now they can briefly, within a limited radius, join their minds in what they call a Cooperative, for example to boost Chakotay's ability to heal from a life-threatening injury. Through this sharing of the minds, the Cooperative takes control of Chakotay and uses him, against his judgment and Captain's orders, to re-start the Borg cube long enough to help them reinitiate the link with all the factions on their planet. Though the Cooperative turns Chakotay loose afterward, and destroys the cube before it can attack Voyager, the question lingers to the last line of the episode: with the power that the sharing of minds gives them, how long will the Cooperative stick to its peaceful ideals?

Darkling is a foreshadowing of Kes's departure from the show early in the next season. Now three years old and a third of the way through her life, the cute Ocampa has started to question whether she wants to spend the rest of her life on Voyager. Triggers for this questioning include her recent breakup with Neelix and her attraction to this dude (pictured), a member of a race of wandering loners who lead a life of romantically solitary exploration. Kes is tempted to run away with Zahir, but the Doctor gruffly advises her that she is making a mistake. The Doctor's gruffness is only the first symptom of a fast-developing problem with his personality, a result of his research into the personalities of historic figures, which he has started to add to his own program. While B'Elanna runs a program to purge the Doc's program of malicious subroutines, a dark-side personality emerges and tries to take control of the situation. Murder, dismemberment, torture, and hostage-taking ensue before the dramatic climax in which Kes and the Doctor are beamed up safety in the middle of plunging off an enormous cliff. In spite of guest work by actors Stephen Davies (in his third Trek role) and David Lee Smith (late of CSI: Miami), the most memorable guest in this episode is the Doctor's alter ego, played by Robert Picardo with a peculiar quirk of the eyes and lips that marks his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation.

Rise is the one where Tuvok and Neelix survive the writing staff's favorite device for breaking open the relationship between two characters: a shuttle crash. Luckily, they land within a short walk of an orbital tether, and are able to use components from their shuttle to repair the carriage so they can ascend above the ionosphere and signal Voyager for a beam-out. Riding along with them, however, are four Nezu colonists, one of whom knows the secret behind the asteroids bombarding their planet, while another will kill to protect it. Caught between them are the Odd Couple of the Delta Quadrant. Three years of character tension between desperate-to-impress Neelix and hard-to-impress Tuvok come to a head when Neelix accuses Tuvok of treating him with contempt. Nevertheless they work together to bring the secrets to defending the Nezu planet back to Voyager, just in time to save the ship from the aggressive aliens whose guided asteroids were a tactic for driving off competing colonists. It's a strikingly memorable episode, which perhaps accounts for the fact that it is only about the sixth episode of this season that I could remember having seen before.

Favorite Son gives Harry Kim a bizarre opportunity to question whether he is a human or an alien. It starts with feelings of déjà vu, a sense of recognition about a region of space he could not possibly have visited before, and quickly develops to the point where he instinctively fires phasers on an alien ship, without orders from the Captain. Janeway suspends Harry from duty, but soon afterward admits that the sensor logs showed the alien ship was preparing to fire its weapons at them. Things get even weirder as the ship approaches a planet which Harry identifies, based on his recent dreams, as Taresia, even before the planet's leader (played by previous DS9 guest Deborah May, pictured) recognizes Harry as a fellow Taresian. Already growing spots and showing signs of hidden Taresian genes emerging into his DNA, Harry is told that his father carried embryo-Harry to Earth and implanted him in his human mother's womb, but now his genetic memory has called him home. At first Harry's welcome-home is warm, with a 9-to-1 ratio of women to men meaning that he is instantly surrounded by a touchy-feely bevy of beauties. But then he finds out that their method of mating means sucking out all his cellular material until he looks like like a mummy. To save Harry and make a clean getaway means flying Voyager through a tricky energy barrier and escaping under the fire of two alien fleets. It's sexy fun, and it's so weird that it could only happen on Star Trek!

Before and After is the episode that takes the unique possibilities of Kes, as an alien whose complete life cycle lasts nine years, as far as this show ever did. It begins with Kes opening her eyes in Sickbay at the end of her life, remembering nothing up to that point. A few moments later she has a cold flash, everything goes all white and fuzzy, and when it passes all she can remember is stuff that (from other people's point of view) hasn't happened yet. Each time this happens, she meets people who know her but whom she only remembers from their encounters in the future, which is the only past that she remembers. It takes a while for everyone to figure out that Kes is jumping backwards in time, and even longer to find out why. It has something to do with foreshadowing a two-part episode in Season 4 titled "Year of Hell," involving an alien menace called the Krenim who use time as a weapon. It's an exciting and weird episode, revealing that (at least in one possible future) Kes and Tom make a baby together, who in turn makes a baby with Harry Kim, and that before "Grandma and Grandpa" were a number, Tom almost died of grief when B'Elanna died alongside the Captain. But even though the Doctor's cure for Kes' little problem is absolutely saturated with technobabble, it works (though not quickly enough to prevent us from seeing Kes age backward to the moment of conception), and the episode ends with everything back to normal... for a while.

Real Life is the one where the Doctor decides to experience family life, albeit in a cutesie, unrealistic, holographic form. Halfway through a dinner party to which she was invited, B'Elanna screams, "Computer, freeze program!" Her attempt to inject a little randomized realism into the Doctor's family life proves to be almost more than "Kenneth" (as his wife calls him) can take. His son falls in with a gang of Klingon teens, his daughter (played by a darling little Lindsey Haun, now playing Sookie Stackhouse on True Blood) takes one on the chin in the rough world of athletics, and his wife (played by character actress Wendy Schaal) morphs from a submissive June Cleaver type into an independent, tough cookie whose love, nevertheless, the Doctor needs in their time of grief. Meanwhile, Tom Paris pops some shuttlecraft wheelies in a risky, and almost disastrous, study of a subspace anomaly that, in a strange half-Klingon way, brings B'Elanna one step closer to jumping his bones.

Distant Origin is such an in-your-face parable about the tension between science and religion, that I would really hate it if it weren't so niftily done. It's also unusual as to how much of it is depicted from the point of view of characters other than the Voyagers. It begins with the skull of poor Ensign Hogan, killed by a snake monster in the season premiere, being discovered by a pair of paleontologists from a race of highly advanced reptilian bipeds, known as the Voth. The Voth are so good at hiding from endotherms (i.e. mammalian humanoids) that no one even realizes that they claim hereditary rights to a vast area of the Delta Quadrant, considering themselves to be the "first race" to arise there, zillions of years ago. But Gegen, a scientist willing to challenge the Doctrine of his people, believes in the "Distant Origin Theory," and an analysis of the Voyager crewman's bones proves him right: the Voth evolved on Earth. (That's where the dinosaurs went!) Gegen and his assistant sneak up on Voyager and attempt to study its crew to find out more about where they came from, but things get hairy when (1) Gegen's assistant is captured; (2) Gegen captures Chakotay; and (3) the Voth city-ship captures the whole lot of them and their leader puts the thumbscrews (metaphorically speaking) to Gegen, similar to the way the Pope pressured Galileo to recant his astronomical discoveries. Chakotay's agony is visible as he watches silently, helplessly, while the Voth Minister uses the Voyager as a game-piece to checkmate Voth. Guest stars include three-time Trek guest Henry Woronicz, two-time Voyager guest Christopher Liam Moore, previous Jem'Hadar Marshal Teague, and Concetta Tomei of TV's Providence.

Displaced is the one where a bunch of seemingly confused and innocent aliens wearing funny hats just start appearing on the Voyager, one every 9 minutes and 20 seconds, while at the same time someone from the ship disappears. By the time the crew realizes that the Nyrians aren't so innocent, but are purposely replacing the crew in order to steal the ship, it's too late to stop them. Not for the first time this year, the Voyagers glumly find themselves marooned while aliens take off in their ship, though this time their surroundings are a bit more pleasant. Nevertheless, they find their way behind the scenes of what turns out to be a gigantic ship containing over 90 biospheres in which the Nyrians detain the former owners of all their stolen property. Luckily, the escaped prisoners also find the controls to the gizmo that transports people back and forth before Voyager returns with reinforcements. This enables the Voyagers to turn the tables and (predictably, since this isn't the last episode they ever made) continue their journey. Each making one of his or her two Trek appearances in this episode are Kenneth Tigar, Mark Taylor, James Noah, and Nancy Youngblut; Deborah Levin puts in her second of three appearances as Ensign Lang, here left (briefly) in command of the bridge while the ship is being taken.

Worst Case Scenario is the one where the Voyagers discover an unfinished holo-novel depicting a Maquis mutiny, set in the early stages of the joint crew's journey. Complete with a Bajoran-looking Seska, the interactive game is just starting to get interesting when Tom reaches the end of it—or rather, the point where its author quit writing it. A quick investigation turns up the fact that Tuvok wrote the story as a training module for junior security officers, at a point when a mutiny seemed more likely; then abandoned it when the likelihood grew less. Spurred on by the captain's enthusiasm for any form of creativity among the crew, Tuvok and Paris begin a reluctant collaboration to complete the holo-novel, bickering all the way. Unluckily for them, the act of re-opening Tuvok's encrypted technobabble triggers more technobabble which the late, unlamented Seska had planted in the program, a final act of revenge from beyond the grave. Now the unlikeliest co-authors have to do a lot of writing on their feet just to stay alive.

Scorpion begins with a group of Borg cubes cruising into the frame and beginning their "Resistance is futile" spiel, only to be blown out of space by a power even hairier and scarier than themselves. That power, pictured here, is known to the Borg as Species 8472, and they come from another dimension where they are the only living thing, and they plan to expand into our dimension after making it the same way. Their cosmic extermination program begins with the Borg, which would ordinarily be good news I suppose, but it so happens that the Voyager needs to cross hundreds of light years of Borg-controlled space just at the moment when Species 8472 is rearing its—I mean, really! By the end of this season-ending cliffhanger, Harry is flat on his back in Sickbay with a dollop of alien goo eating him alive, and Voyager has just been outpaced by fifteen (15) Borg cubes running as though the hounds of hell were at their heels, which you may suppose to be the case when you see the weapon the new bad-guy aliens have. Hint: It is pictured at the top of this post. Playing Leonardo da Vinci in Janeway's holo-program is John Rhys Davies of Indiana Jones, Sliders and Lord of the Rings fame.

For more on spaceship-based TV series, see my reviews of Star Trek: TOS seasons one, two, and three; of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven; of DS9 seasons one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven; of Voyager seasons one and two; and of Enterprise season one. See also my review of Farscape seasons one, two, three, and four; of Firefly; and of Babylon 5 seasons one, two, three, and four.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Epochal Music, Mythic Film, Snowflake Food

This past weekend I had a night at the movies, a night at the Symphony, and an exceptional meal in the midst of one of my few forays into public transit.

On Saturday the 12th, I used my first tickets of this season's subscription to hear Louie Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto played by Horacio Gutiérrez, Dick Strauss's "Death & Transfiguration" tone poem, and Maury Ravel's decadent "La Valse," conducted by Japanese-German maestro Jun Märkl. I had heard Gutiérrez play a Rachmaninoff concerto a year or two ago, and knew he was terrific; I had never heard Maestro Märkl at work.

It was a great program, with Beethoven's popular E-flat fifth concerto displaying both masculine assertiveness and tender lyricism, the latter especially in the slow middle movement. The Strauss piece, written in the youth of its composer who, when dying at age 85, famously testified that death really was like he had written it, uses pure music to depict the struggle of someone who has "striven for high ideals" (i.e. the artist) to accept his impending mortality, rising to a glorious culmination and including themes that John Williams would plunder a century later (e.g. the love theme from Superman).

Finally, Ravel held his own at the end of the program with a ballet score (rejected by Sergei Diaghilev, to the composer's deep hurt) in which the Vienna waltzes (and perhaps the entire way of life) of the previous century were held up against the lens of Paris in 1920: a smooth, graceful, decadent motor whose belts have begun to slip. The waltz step becomes increasingly disjointed and jarred by rhythmic and harmonic disturbances until, at the very end, it collapses into chaotic savagery. Whether it's an indictment of a present world in which such events as World War I could take place, or of a past which for all its shining promise held the germs of such events, is hard to tell. But it isn't every day that a waltz gives you chills.

On Sunday, after coming home from church on the type of bright, blue, clear day that I value so much, I decided to take one of my long walks. The "stick" motivating me is that I need to get in better shape. The "carrot" was the movie house in Clayton, to which I have walked several times before. By time I got there, I was just on time to catch a screening of the movie Immortals, a loose adaptation of the Greek legend of Theseus, directed by a Bollywood veteran and featuring British actor Henry Cavill (late of TV's The Tudors) as the studly hero.

I remember spotting Cavill playing Edmund Dantes' son in the version of The Count of Monte Cristo that featured Jim Caviezel in the title role. I remember thinking then that a youth with such chiseled features, upright figure, intense presence, and perfect teeth must someday, inevitably, become a big star. But not having seen The Tudors myself, I have known nothing of Cavill since then, except (what every Harry Potter fan knew at the time) that he was rumored to be on the list to play Cedric Diggory but didn't get the part, and (what even I didn't notice until the end titles rolled, because I didn't recognize him) that he played a supporting role in Neil Gaiman's Stardust.

And now, behold a superstar in the making... I don't know what happened to the youth who made a generation of British schoolgirls wish to see him play Cedric Diggory, but those who see Immortals will see an action hero in a class to which Robert Pattinson could never aspire to belong. With a jaw that could slay thousands with one flash of his still-perfect teeth, a sunburn that can't have come easily to a Brit in his native habitat, and a charisma that makes every frame that he isn't in languish in relative dullness even when his character is covered with noisome filth from head to toe, Henry Cavill puts all tween vampires in the shade—including the one who plays Poseidon in this film.

His Theseus is a terrific hero, combining beach bum good looks with a run-straight-at-you-roaring-like-a-lion thing that could make him a terrifying guy to cross. He is supported by Stephen Dorff (a former vampire), John Hurt (a former wizard), Stephen McHattie (a former Romulan), Luke Evans (so recently a musketeer that both of his films are simultaneously playing), Mickey Rourke (like, duh), and loads of actors who seem to have been recruited for their ability to flex their abs impressively while vomiting lungfuls of blood. Expect lots of violence, blood, guts, decapitations, tongue-severings, castrations, etc., happening to mostly good-looking people, and a little hanky-panky with a Bollywood beauty who reveals enough to make up for the abs-and-blood stuff.

As I left the theater, thinking about whether I really wanted to walk all the way home, my streak of perfect timing continued as a bus pulled up right beside me. I hopped aboard, somehow managed to make exact change although I seldom carry hard currency on me, and collected a transfer ticket good through 7:00 p.m. when it was hardly 5:00. The bus driver very helpfully explained the route I needed to follow, and so I sat back and watched the sights of Washington University flow by—including the Gothic arch that is surely on the cover of the brochure, and a whole crowd of neo-baroque buildings overlooking Forest Park.

The bus dropped me off in front of a cafe that used to be the site of Talayna's pizzeria; from around the corner I caught a train (having to wait for only a few minutes at the Skinker Station, just long enough to realize I live with a skinker—my cat Tyrone having begun his pest-control career in Arizona where little beige lizards called skinks were as apt as mice to be caught invading your house). The train dropped me off, one stop later, a block south of the current site of Talayna's, and inspired by that coincidence, as well as the luxury of 90 minutes to go on my transfer ticket, I went into the restaurant and had dinner.

I have probably described Talayna's here before. It wasn't my first visit. But I had forgotten how exceptional their pizza is. So emphatically handmade that, like snowflakes, no two of its "New York style" crusts are identical in shape, they taste just how pizzas are meant to taste in the neighborhood of my brain that houses platonic ideals, and not at all as one would expect to taste in Saint Louis, where all pizzas seem to have evolved from the common ancestor of Imo's crispy, flat-crust, provel-cheese abomination. I had a "small" pepperoni-and-onion pizza at Talayna's and, although its warm crust of hand-tossed poorbread, its stretchy salty Mozzarrella cheese, and its rich seasonings evoked a sentimental memory of bygone pizzas, even glutton that I am I could not finish this pizza. And, alas, I didn't think I could take the leftovers with me, since I had another bus ride ahead of me.

I was crossing the street to get to the bus stop when I realized that the vehicle in front of which I was crossing was the bus I needed to catch. I ran to the bus stop, arriving just when the bus did, and enjoyed the last of my streak of perfect timing in a public transit system in which I have experienced waits of up to 45 minutes for a bus that I was expecting in no time flat. It was good to be home, not too excruciatingly footsore, enjoying memories of Immortals' ludicrously anachronistic armor, the gods' irritating habit of interfering in human battles as though to make the entertaining saga last longer, and the ambrosian pizza that Dionysus himself would have ordered if delivery hadn't been such a bitch.