Streaming Star Trek Discovery

A new Star Trek TV show is an exciting event that only comes around every few years, and you never know when it will be the final Star Trek series.  People will get tired of this, yes?  Enterprise ended after only four seasons, and that seemed to be the death kneel for any future Star Trek show.  But then came the rebooted movies and now, yet another attempt at bringing Star Trek to television.

Sort of.           

Although Star Trek Discovery had its premiere on CBS, the series is being shown exclusively (at least in the US) on the CBS All Access streaming service. As a long time Star Trek fan, I figured the show would have to be an incredible crap fest for me not to sign up for the service.  Although all networks stream their show content online, CBS seems to be unique in thinking it can compete with Hulu and Netflix by creating original content for their service.  It’s already given that a test run with the show, The Good Fight, a spinoff of their long time popular show The Good Wife.

As a strategy, it may not be a bad one.  CBS owns a lot of valuable properties and paying to produce original content, such as a spinoff of a popular network show, or a show with a dedicated fan base, might be a winning option.  Unlike network shows, streaming services have exact data on sign ups and who’s watching, so if a strategy is working, they will know immediately, and in that vein, CBS News reported that it broke the one day record for new sign ups after the Discovery premiere.

So yes, I signed right up.

Let me say this about the CBS All Access streaming service; I find it incredible that a streaming service that intends to complete with Hulu and Netflix does not have an app for Smart TV’s.  That is serious malpractice right there.  Yes, it does have apps for Windows and Apple products, as well as Roku and Xbox, but no Smart TV app?  So a show with a multimillion dollar per episode budget with movie quality special effects can’t be shown on your average Smart TV?

Come on!

That inconvenience aside, another issue with the CBS Streaming Access is that there just isn’t much else there I would want to watch.  I mean, it’s all CBS re-runs other than The Good Fight and Discovery of course.  However CBS did seem to recognize that and added a post-show gabfest for Discovery called After Trek. A post episode discussion show isn’t a bad idea if done right.  AMC’s companion show to the Walking Dead, Talking Dead, is a perfect example of how to do it right.  In the small universe of after show fan service, Talking Dead’s Chris Hardwick is the perfect post show host.  He knows how to keep the conversation flowing, and is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the source material.  Most importantly, he knows how to guide his show guests into talking about their characters, rather than themselves.  Not an easy job for Hollywood actors.  On the other end of the spectrum, HBO’s After the Thrones was a train wreck.  Apparently hosting skills for these particular types of shows are not common.

Watching the first episode of After Trek, I would definitely give it high marks in comparison to the previously mentioned After the Thrones. The show is not in Talking Dead territory, but host Matt Mira is surprisingly good.   He has some work ahead of him though in order to pull some character backstory from the actors.  When asking actor James Frain, who plays Sarek, about some of Sarek’s motivations, Frain replied that he just says the lines.  I can’t decide if that’s a terrible answer or a great one, but I’m leaning towards great.

As for the show itself (and warning, there be spoilers), there is no doubt the title should have been Star Trek Woke: The Current Year.  Prior to the premiere, there were reports that the producers were recasting the Klingons as MAGA supporters, Make Q’onoS* Great Again and all that.  Well I can report that is the case. Much of the first two episodes have a great deal of Klingon scenes (in Klingon of course) in which the political situation in the empire is one of disarray, and much is made of the mongrelization of the Federation, with all the different Federation races blending in multicultural diversity; something that’s anathema to these red State Klingons.  Luckily, the Discovery cast is there to take a knee to racist Klingons.

Of course this is hardly the first TV show that the Trump election has caused breakdowns in the writer’s rooms.  Homeland, the Showtime spy series had such a breakdown in which they threw out the outline for their last season half way through and it ended in an incoherent mess.  CBS summer replacement show Salvation had a coup d’etat against a female President requiring a counter coup to get rid of that man and put a woman back in charge, all which had nothing to do with a show about an asteroid coming to destroy earth.

As for the plot of the pilot, as one online commenter put it, “Sassy black girl teaches the Federation how to deal with warlike Klingons, gets sent to prison.”

That’s basically it for the two part show opener.  For that, just a few observations:

There is a lot of go grrrl nonsense in this show. In one scene the Captain and First Officer, both female, beam onto a Klingon ship and win a hand to hand tussle (at least initially) with a couple of Klingons. I know this is science fiction but come on!  Of course after several decades of watching 90 pound waifs’ karate chop 250 pound trained male fighters on television, the scene doesn’t look quite as ridiculous as it actually was.  I guess we’re all conditioned to accept that tiny women not only can defeat large men in hand to hand combat, but in almost all circumstances they most certainly will.

In the build up to the show the look of the Klingons is so different from any earlier look of that species that the producers had to explain that Klingons were a very diverse race and there were many types of Klingons depending on which “house” the Klingon belonged to. So in a scene that showed the heads of all the Klingon houses, they all looked the same, the new version. Why not just do a different alien species if you want a new look? Not sure I get that. It definitely breaks canon though.

As far as the characters go, the only really likeable one seems to be Lt. Commander Saru, a weird looking alien ( he’s a “Kelpien”) who manages to do more to inject a little humanity into the show than any of the other characters, including titular star of the show Commander Michael Burnham, played by Walking Dead alum Sonequa Martin-Green. That being said, the unique backstory of the character; orphaned human girl raised by Sarek on Vulcan and graduate of the Vulcan Science Academy, lends itself to being played as a little less human.  In that regard, Martin-Green does have the acting chops to carry the lead for a show like this.  A flashback to the first time she meets her captain on the USS Shenzhou, introduced by Sarek, gives every appearance of a human trying hard to be Vulcan, contrasted to present day when she has a much more relaxed and “human” demeanor, but still with traces of a Vulcan upbringing. So if anything, the show does have a strong lead.

But that’s just my impressions from the first two hours of the show which really isn’t even a proper pilot; it’s more like a prequel to the set up.  The ship Discovery doesn’t even make an appearance.  So the third episode is more the actual pilot, and from viewing that, my impressions are that the episode ought to have been called, “Starfleet is the New Black.”  Prisoner Burnham is the most famous mutineer in Starfleet and responsible for starting the current Klingon war. When her prison shuttle is accidently waylaid to the USS Discovery, she’s drafted into the crew. Or was it an accident?  This was an episode that I actually got into and enjoyed both as a bit of escapist adventure TV and a bit of horror TV as well.

So we’ll see how it goes. As a long time Star Trek fan, I want to see what they do with this and having seen the third episode, feel a bit more hopeful this show will actually be entertaining. Knowing that Discovery will have a Harry Mudd episode and a Mirror Universe episode, the show has the potential to either knock it out of the park or flop. I guess I’ll know by the time we get to the Mirror Universe episode. If they screw that up…

 

*The Klingon home world for all you non nerds

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With 12 Monkeys, Cable tries to Binge

When Netflix started to do original programming and released the entire season at once, I thought, “What an original idea!  But how are you going to keep up the excitement of a show if you release it one shot and you’re done?”  Although it does limit the time frame of “buzz” it turned out to be a successful business model.  People can move at their own pace, which could be anywhere from watching the show on the traditional once a week schedule to all at once, bleary eyes and lost weekend included.

But I was surprised when the Syfy Channel decided to do the same thing for returning show 12 Monkeys. Airing season three over three nights, the network is trying something different.

It’s an odd choice for a cable network.  They have airtime to fill, so why blow an expensive season of an original show over a weekend?  And before you say it, no; this is not like showing successive Twilight Zone episodes over New Years. That’s simply to fill airtime during a period when viewing will be exceptionally low.  But dropping an original show is a streaming service move, which Syfy definitely is not.  So what’s up?

Well after watching Friday night’s initial 4 episode blast, I have to say I agree with both the TV Guide and TV Line reviews: This show was meant to be watched in a binge format.  Having watched Season’s 1 & 2 in the traditional once a week format, you often forget where you left off.  After all, this show is complicated.  Each episode takes place in more than one time period, sometimes with the same characters at different points in their lives. Sometimes, death comes first, as for the character of Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), who’s skeleton was discovered in the very first episode way back in season one.  Sometimes it’s in the middle, like for former asylum patient Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), who’s death was shown last season.  Not to worry though Jennifer fans, her younger self is featured pretty prominently this season.

And a good thing too.  The character steals every single scene she’s in, adding humor in otherwise grim situations without detracting from the grimness of the situations because…well she’s crazy.  So far my favorite episode of the season is episode 2, which is a Jennifer-centric episode.  Jennifer trapped in the past tries to figure out ways to catch the attention of the future so she can be rescued.  It’s entertaining and still moves the plot along.  So more Jennifer.

 

One character that I like, but has been degraded somewhat is Deacon (Todd Stashwick), the formerly ruthless leader of a violent gang in the future.  In earlier seasons, Deacon made a great foil as a villain more interested in looting the time travel facility than saving the human race. Unfortunately, the violent, evil, but witty bad guy has been tamed somewhat by his attraction to Dr. Railly. It’s not the first time on TV and movies an alpha male bad guy has been tamed by love, but it isn’t very realistic.  Hopefully Deacon gets his evil mojo back.

So maybe binge watching cable isn’t a bad idea after all.  Particularly if it encourages the production of more complicated dramas that may be digested better in very large bites, rather than doled out bit by bit on a weekly basis.

 

My Netfix Review: Season 2: Orange Is the New Black

Season 2 of OINB dropped into the Netflix queue on Friday, and apparently plenty of people had time to go through all 13 episodes.

Sheesh!

I’m not a binge watcher and I think it’s unfortunate that binge watching has become a thing for our time shifted TV watching.  Frankly, I just don’t see who has the time to actually sit down for that many hours on a weekend to watch an entire television season.  Are there that many people with that much free time?  Or are unemployed hipsters the new must reach TV demographic?

So I’ve only seen three episodes so far, but I think it’s enough to know that I’m going to enjoy the season.  When last we left Piper she was beating the crap out of Pennsatucky in the yard, a season long culmination of evolution from prissy upper class WASP to what she she’s been all season and just hasn’t acknowledged; just another inmate.  Piper, with no knowledge of Pennsatucky’s condition, is roused from solitary confinement and flown via con-air to Chicago, all the while with no idea why she’s been sent there or when if ever, she’s coming back to Litchfield.

Back at Litchfield, things proceed without Piper, with interesting flashbacks on Taystee and Crazy Eyes to see what began their journey that would end up in prison.  And Red confronts a new/old rival who intends to take control of the prison.

One of the things I like about the show is that none of the inmates are who we think they are, including Piper.  Our impressions undergo a convergence.  It’s not that Piper becomes like her fellow inmates, it’s that she already had a part of her that was like them, and it slowly becomes uncovered.  And the other inmates?  They were always more complicated then we gave them credit for.

Any time there is a show with a diverse cast there will be some sort of racial controversy, however  in general, the reviews are fairly positive in that regard too.  The Root has a second season review called, Today’s Best Black Show has a White Star.  NPR’s review is New Faces Keep ‘Orange is the New Black’ Humming in a New Season.  This review is written by Eric Deggans, a man whose racial sensitivity meter is always turned up to 11, also gives a positive review of the show.  In a previous incarnation as writer TV & Media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, Deggans managed to almost single handedly get a syndicated radio show kicked out of the Tampa radio market because it crossed his racial line. So are we supposed to think there is a racial agreement on the merits of the show?

Not quite.

There is the show, and then there’s the image of the show.  One of the many blogs I frequent had, not a review of the show, but a review of billboard advertising of the show.  Particularly Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba).

The gist being, based on the billboard advertising, Orange is the New Black is a minstrel show that debases and degrades the image of black women.  As Spike Lee might say, it’s “coonery and buffoonery.”  I waded into the discussion with the argument, based on watching the entire first season, that the idea that show degrades black women is a severe misreading of the show.  The intent of the show is exactly the opposite of that; however my knowledge of having watched the entire first season couldn’t counter impressions of the show made by a few images.  Normally I enjoy a good internet argument, but quickly saw that this one was already  doomed based on the way the commenter’s were taking this show personally, felt that feelings supersede actually viewing and knowledge of the show, and was told to stop by the blog owner.

That’s fine, and although I feel I’m correct that the show does the opposite of what those commenters said, the fact is it probably would not have occurred to me to view those images as offensive in any case.  I’m not even attuned to my image and representation being constantly shown in a degraded light by the media; just the opposite.  Of course I have many identities and some of them I am sensitive to their portrayal.  As a dad, I’m well aware that dads have been treated as clueless idiots in TV and movies since the early 1980’s.  It’s the rare TV dad that shows the common sense, wisdom, or maturity of Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady.

I’m also sensitive to the portrayal of military veterans; again because I am one.  Frequently they are shown as damaged goods, crazy, homeless, suicidal.  That’s not the typical story of military veterans in general, but it’s common enough on TV and movies.  Of course the argument could be made (and it has been) that the show really hates men.  All the good men are weak and useless; all of the strong ones are jerks. As a man however, I didn’t really care. I think those portrayals made sense in the context of the show.  Just because a show shows dumb dads, crazed vets, or evil men doesn’t mean I won’t watch the show.

And that’s the difference, I think.  Since my image isn’t generally attacked in media, I don’t view media impressions as a personal attack on me.  Clearly the image of white men in the media is positive.  For every Django Unchained or 12 Years a Slave, there are literally hundreds of other movies in which white guys are the heroes. Even if these white guys get arrested for a crime-they-didn’t-commit, they can be assured of facing a black female judge in court.

 

My Netflix Review: Iron Sky

I had been waiting for this movie for years, ever since the initial trailer hit the internet:

So I was delighted to see it pop into Netflix last week.  It seemed to have all of the classic B movie elements, Nazis, a ridiculous premise, and did I mention Nazis?  Who wouldn’t want to see a comedy like that?  Well that was the purpose of the trailer.  Not to promote a movie already made, but to obtain financing for a movie the producers wanted to make.  Using crowd funding, the producers wanted to close the gap between what they were able to raise from normal studio methods and what they needed to complete the film.  Crowd funding may well be a strong future method of financing films as the internet makes it possible to connect potential investors by dangling a trailer of what you have in mind for a film.

And crowd funding did work, helping the producers close the financial gap and make their movie.  So the movie was released worldwide and…bombed, earning just over 8 million dollars worldwide.  Not that great for a movie that had such internet interest prior to being released.  Hopefully the movie’s investors didn’t have any retirement plans tied to their investment in this movie paying off.

But what about the movie itself?  Is it the Good, the Bad, or the Ugly?  If you put much stock into Rotten Tomatoes it rated a 37% on the Tomatometer.  However, it is a B movie about Nazis on the moon, so we’re talking about grading on the curve here.

The basic plot of the movie is that in the near future, an American moon expedition to the dark side of the moon comes across a secret Nazi moon base, hidden since the end of World War II and working to reverse the results of the war.  One of the American astronauts, or should I say the Black American astronaut is captured.  Realizing that the astronauts Iphone has more computing power than the Nazi’s World War II era  computers, the space Nazi’s send a mission to Earth to collect more Iphones to provide the computing power needed to operate their ultimate weapon.  Along for the ride is the supposedly brainwashed American Astronaut, and stowaway “Earthologist” Renate Richter (Julia Dietze).  Antics ensue when the Nazi’s hit New York and besides an Apple Store, they discover new motivations for their mission.

Plus, a space battle.

However here is my take:

First the good:  The movies tone was just about right.  It was playful, with a hint of comedy.  Not enough to really consider it an actual comedy, but in this case, the premise is the comedy.  Although I have to admit the parody of the Downfall parody meme placed in the film gave me a laugh out loud moment.  The movie is well casted, with the starring role of Renate by Julia Dietze showing perhaps the most delightful, beguiling Nazi to appear on the silver screen.   She outshines Udo Kier, who as the Führer is the biggest star in the film.  The special effects, although not spectacular, were sufficient for the film and the production and costuming was excellent.  Little was updated in the basic Nazi uniforms, which have proven a perennial fascist costuming favorite for over 60 years.  The set design was strictly 1940’s U-Boot.  Even the Nazi’s anti gravity flying saucers had a retro feel to them.

The bad:  As a Finnish-German-Australian production, I’m not sure how they know how to present black people.   Christopher Kirby, playing astronaut James Washington, as one of the main stars of the film, was given little to do other than stand around being black.  In fact his character wasn’t even an astronaut but a male model sent to space as a publicity stunt.  As a consequence, the character is presented as if the last time the makers of the film saw a black guy in a film was in a 1970’s Blaxploitation film.

Or any Chris Tucker movie.

I’m not saying it was a degrading or racist portrayal; I mean, the character didn’t say “feets don’t fail me now” or anything like that, but it was way stereotypie.

Also, I wasn’t a fan of the film’s Anti-Americanism.  In fact, reading some of the tweets on this movie, it seems like for most of the fans who really liked the film, the anti-Americanism was the best part of the film.  Start with a Palin-esque President; in fact you might as well call her President Palin.  The moon based Nazis who come to earth to collect Apple products end up with the President’s campaign manager, who integrates the newcomers National Socialist ideology into a winning campaign strategy.  Combine that with the US’s secret moon agenda and you quickly figure out who the real Nazi’s are:  Yep, it’s the Americans.  In fact at the end of the movie, even the Nazi’s get at least a partial redemption and sympathy from the audience. Thanks partly to Julia Dietze‘s ability to portray her character as the protagonist with nothing but good intentions, compared to the American indiscriminate targeting of women and children.  No sympathy for the Americans though.  They are the films real bad guys.

However, if you hate America, or can just handle heavy doses of anti-Americanism, I would recommend you see this movie.  First, if you really, really like B movies, this is definitely one.  And secondly, it’s about Nazi’s.  And they’re on the moon!  It’s kind of hard to mess that up.

My Netfix Review: Lilyhammer

What happens when you take an average gabba goul eating Goodfella; transport him to Norway, and let him try to blend in with the locals?  Well antics ensue of course, and that’s the premise of the Netflix original series Lilyhammer.  Yes I know it sounds preposterous, but the premise of this limited series seems pretty clearly to have come from some late night drinking.

“We take this mafia guy who joins witness protection, but instead of being relocating to Southern California or someplace, he wants to relocate to… I dunno, Norway?”     

Publicidad de Netflix

Publicidad de Netflix (Photo credit: Daniel_Afanador)

“Put the bottle down, you’ve had enough.”

It’s interesting that Netflix, for its first original project, chose this idea over what I’m sure were a multitude of others.  I can only assume that someone among Netflix’s higher ups really missed the Sopranos, since this show has all of the markers of a Sopranos’s sequel, Silvio on Ice.

Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio in The Sopranos, plays much the same character again, only with a different name.  When he suspects (via an attempted hit) that he’s on the outs with the new boss, he decides to turn State’s witness against him in exchange for relocation… to Lillehammer, Norway.  Why Lillehammer?  Eh, he liked the way it looked during the 1994 Olympics.

Really.

It’s a bit of a bizarre fish out of water tale, but this fish actually adapts fairly well into the community, quickly becoming a successful club owner in a country where proper permitting and licenses can take years, Van Zandt’s character manages it in days thanks to his ability to bring his mob business tactics to the rigid Norwegian bureaucracy.  Naturally, he manages to also attract some unwelcome police attention.

Although that’s part of the cross cultural stranger in a strange land story, the way the show handles the language barrier is also unique.  The Norwegians speak Norwegian and Van Zant’s character, Frank Tagliano, speaks English.  The conceit of the show is that Tagliano, shown listening to language tapes on his way to Norway, can understand the language, but can’t speak it.  So he speaks English, the Norwegians speak to him in their language, and he understands.  It’s a weird way to have a conversation, but it mostly seems to work, if you can accept the premise that a guy can understand the language perfectly, but can’t speak a word; so half the show is subtitles.  Now some people just will not accept subtitles (yes I’m referring to my fellow Americans) under any circumstances, so if that applies, this show isn’t for you.

More interesting than the show is the business model that got this show on the…air.  Netflix intends to use original programming to attract subscribers.  Their logic is that the old advertising model that has funded on the air and cable television is on the way out.  The multiplication of TV channels and the alternative options to regular television mean that the audience is getting smaller and smaller for each channel.  The days of getting 106 million viewers for a single show, like the series finale of MASH, are, with the exception of major sports events, gone forever. As the television audience becomes more bifurcated, the revenues these channels can get for advertising shrinks.

Netflix ignores advertisers.  It’s only interested in attracting new subscribers.  Will Lilyhammer help with that?

I’m guessing no.

Although it did garner enough viewers to justify a second season, I doubt the show actually did much to pull in new subscribers to the service.  However for its next show it’s decided to go after an already established fan base.  It’s producing 10 new episodes of the show Arrested Development.  Like Community, which I wrote about here, Arrested Development has an established, loyal fan base that could be tempted to sign up for a Netflix account to view the shows.  Other properties that Netflix was considering, like Terra Nova, did not.  There is even talk about reviving Firefly on Netflix (please oh please!)

When the second season of Lilyhammer comes out next year, I’ll probably watch it.  Hey I’m invested in the story now and want to see where it goes, but I don’t think the potential audience for a show like this is particularly big.

That’s why it’s on Netflix.

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