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Geek Squirrel’s Nutty Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In a previous blog I posted my concerns about J. J. Abrams’ seeming lack of comprehension regarding the original spirit of Star Trek. Some readers considered it an indictment of the rebooted franchise, and in a sense it was. That said, Abrams did deliver a fresh take on the series that was enjoyable and modern, despite its flaws. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams and his writing staff appear to go overboard in their attempts to please old school Star Trek fans, and while I applaud their efforts, their failure to really understand the philosophy of the series leads to some serious problems in the third act. That said, Into Darkness is still a very enjoyable movie and almost everything that a good summer blockbuster should be. It succeeds as solid entertainment but fails to reconcile itself to the original source material.

The movie itself is not short on action. Most of the sequences are well-choreographed and exciting, but some of them, particularly a shuttle chase midway through the second act, are borderline gratuitous and could easily have been removed. The actors are all given something interesting to do, and each deals with it with varying degrees of success. The principles all turn in well-crafted performances, and Benedict Cumberbatch finally gives the world at large a taste of his acting abilities. The film also attempts to deal with some post-9/11 issues in a somewhat limited fashion. There are attempts at the higher sense of morality that the original series was famous for, but the third act backslides into simple good vs. evil sensibilities.

Some of the movie’s stumbles lie in the common blockbuster errors of excesses at the expense of logic. Many situations are set up based on the flimsiest of notions, like the opening where the Enterprise is hiding underwater in order to avoid detection from a primitive alien race. Why it was necessary to hide the immense ship in the ocean when she would be perfectly safe and secure in orbit is never explained, nor does it serve any obvious purpose other than to set up a ‘money shot’ of her rising from the depths. Similarly, newcomer Alice Eve is exposed in a ridiculously juvenile T and A scene. Abrams piles on the explosions in the third act, setting up action sequence after action sequence like Michael Bay on a weekend bender. Again, these sequences are wonderful as individual set pieces, but they tend to overrun the movie like an endless parade of shiny red fire trucks.

Much of the film’s major narrative flaws have to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, and in deference to those who have not seen the movie, I will refrain from spoilers until further down in this review. Suffice it to say that Cumberbatch begins as an intriguing, mysterious villain, but devolves into a common bad guy that needs to be punched out as brutally as possible. Again, part of this lies in attempts to cater to fans of the original series, which some viewers might find pleasing but others may find highly contrived. I will allow you to form your own opinion on the issue, but I personally fall into the later camp. If you wish to read a more detailed analysis, feel free to stick around after the final rating, otherwise, this is your spoiler warning.

Star Trek: Into Darkness gets Three Acorns out of Five!
The Final Frontier…..

Still with me? All right then.
Abrams has admitted that he was not a fan of the original Star Trek, nor did he appreciate the type of idealistic moralizing the show indulged in. This is eminently clear in his writing staff’s treatment of the latter half of Into Darkness, which is essentially a reboot of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. In re-visiting the classic film, Abrams effectively shoe-horns large chunks of dialogue from the original film into the climax of his own, instead switching the roles of Kirk and Spock so that the good Captain is the one who makes the sacrifice. Abrams and writer Robert Orci wisely back off from a verbatim re-shoot of the emotional death scene, but enough of the dialogue is in place to make some viewers visibly cringe upon witnessing what seems to be a near-parody of a classic sci-fi moment.

In rebooting the original story, however, Abrams and Orci back away from exploring a potentially deeper moral in favor of returning to simple good guy versus bad guy mentalities. Throughout the first act, Kirk is portrayed as a person hell-bent upon revenge against Khan, and it is only Spock’s calming influence that prevents him from simply killing Khan outright. This is reinforced when the crew discovers that Khan was merely a pawn in a conspiracy engineered by their superior officer at Starfleet. Khan’s terrorist actions were in effect an attempt to stop a renegade Admiral who was holding his people hostage. At this point, the morality of Kirk and company is evident. Kirk realizes that his desire for revenge may be at least somewhat misplaced, and he brokers a truce with Khan in order to defeat the Admiral. This creates an interesting commentary on the post-9/11 world. The idea that the pursuit of revenge has corrupted the United States has been a facet of other post-9/11 fiction, most notably the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. But no sooner has the Admiral been defeated then Khan reverts to his evil ways, setting up the reboot of the original film’s ending. This completely undermines the potential for a morality play on the level of classic Star Trek, for in the end, the crew decides to “get the bastard” in order to avenge Kirk, and Spock is only prevented from killing Khan due to a contrived need for a deus ex machina to revive his Captain.

In attempting to re-imagine Wrath of Khan, Abrams and his writers back away from the kind of philosophical and moral stance that was a hallmark of the original series; a moral stance that Abrams confessed he did not enjoy or appreciate when he first watched the show. The creators’ lack of understanding of the source material is equally evident in their treatment of Khan himself, for the potential of redemption existed within the character when he was first introduced in the episode “Space Seed”.

KIRK: Name, Khan, as we know him today. (Spock changes the picture) Name, Khan Noonien Singh.
SPOCK: From 1992 through 1996, absolute ruler of more than a quarter of your world. From Asia through the Middle East.
MCCOY: The last of the tyrants to be overthrown.
SCOTT: I must confess, gentlemen. I’ve always held a sneaking admiration for this one.
KIRK: He was the best of the tyrants and the most dangerous. They were supermen, in a sense. Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.
SPOCK: Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is
KIRK: Mister Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.
SCOTT: There were no massacres under his rule.
SPOCK: And as little freedom.
MCCOY: No wars until he was attacked.
SPOCK: Gentlemen.
KIRK: Mister Spock, you misunderstand us. We can be against him and admire him all at the same time.

Khan was presented as more Napoleonic that Nazi, and while his attempt to take over the ship was ruthless, he expressed frustration at what he saw as being forced to kill in order to achieve his ends. It is Khan’s admirable qualities that eventually persuade Kirk to give him a chance to start his own civilization by marooning him with his people on a habitable planet. (The fact that it tragically did not work out was the setup for Wrath.) As such, the potential for creating a more layered villain existed in this story, and had Abrams and Orci taken notice of this, they might have broken new ground with the character. Had they chosen to keep Khan on the path to redemption, or at least made him somewhat redeemable, they would have kept to the spirit of the original series while creating a more original and creative story. At the very least, they could have stuck more to the spirit of the original episode by exiling Khan rather than beating him down and shoving him into a cryo tube. By choosing to re-create Wrath of Khan, however, they created a contrived, forced conclusion that trampled on the morals espoused by the original series. Adhering to the philosophy of original Trek would arguably have delivered a film more satisfying to old school fans, while at the same time escaping the sense of re-treading (harsher critics might say ‘stomping on the hallowed memory of’) Wrath of Khan

It is a shame that Abrams and Orci seem to be unable to reconcile the flashy effects, superb acting and spot-on characterizations with a story that explores deeper issues and breaks new ground. If a third installment is created, I am hoping that they will end these rather weak attempts to pander to old school fans with mishandled plot reboots, and instead focus on what new Trek does best: present a newer, hipper and more action-oriented film that respects the original material rather than pays lip-service to it.

P. S. Am I the only one who thought the “old Spock” cameo was also a waste of time?


Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: The Rings of of Akhaten

We begin with the Doctor doing some time-stalking of his latest protegee. He visits Clara’s past and surreptitiously observes bits of her life. To all intents and purposes, she seems normal to him, which he finds frustrating. But sharp-eyed viewers will notice some interesting clues about Clara’s origin…things like dates on tombstones, birth dates, and other more subtle references which I will reserve for another thread.

At any rate, the Doctor returns to pick up Clara for her first adventure and takes her to the titular location: the rings of Akhaten. Apparently the Doctor has been here before with his granddaughter (clue) and seems to like the place. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of “The Beast Below”, Clara encounters a child in distress and elects to help her. Clara comforts her by relating how she faced her greatest fear, and how her mother comforted her with a speech reminiscent of Amy’s speech about Rory in “A Good Man Goes to War”.

Did I mention that the girl was dressed in an outfit vaguely similar to the seers in “The Fires of Pompeii”? Either these little touches are deliberate, or the writing crew is getting soft. As the story progresses we are faced with a gas giant planet that feeds on memories, we get an epic speech by the Doctor that is vaguely reminiscent of, oh, an epic speech by the Doctor, and there’s a lot of singing.

In the end, “Rings” is yet another reasonably tolerable episode that does its best to try to be more than what it is. The problems with Jenna Louise-Coleman’s Clara continue. As I said before, I do like Ms. Coleman immensely, but her character has yet to bring the emotional weight that her predecessors did. With Rose, we got a character whose frustrations with her lot in life were palpable. Donna’s life was similarly empty for different reasons, as was Amy’s. Clara’s plight is similar to that of Martha Jones. Both characters were played by good actresses, but both were replacements for beloved companions and struggled under the weight of that prejudice. Martha at least benefited from some good scripts, but Coleman has yet to find her niche.

The problem is that we don’t really care about Clara yet. Her backstory is very pedestrian and lacks the kind of impact that previous companions enjoyed. The only thing that’s interesting about Clara is the mystery that surrounds her, which has nothing to do with her personal character. In the end, this has probably been the most disappointing companion launch in the revived series.

That said, “Rings” does provide us with another epic speech, ably delivered by Matt Smith, but it seems somewhat overwrought and forced. Previous speeches by the Eleventh Doctor were set up to be the culmination of major plot points. In this case, it just sort of happens, and as much as we care about the Doctor, it doesn’t have as large an emotional payoff as it should.

“The Rings of Akhaten” gets Three Acorns out of Five.

Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: Doctor Who “The Bells of St. John”

With the return of Doctor Who we are finally gifted with the first regular episode for new companion Clara Oswald. Well, technically, it’s the third time we’ve been introduced to her, but why bother to count? This time Clara is a live-in nanny for a typical London family. She is quickly entangled with the Doctor over a threat carried over wi-fi. It seems if you accidentally click on some squiggly lines when trying to log in, you will be captured and ultimately fed to the Great Intelligence.

This episode, while fun, is wracked with problematic elements. The chief of which is the main threat: a monster that will eat you if you click on the wrong wi-fi connection. Put simply, you have to be pretty darned stupid to click on a bunch of unknown squiggly lines that pops up on your computer, and a monster that feeds on stupid people is not what I would call threatening (since I am a total screaming genius…see what I did there?). There’s nothing less scary than a monster that is easily avoided.
Which brings us to another problem: Clara Oswald. We have been introduced to her twice before, and unfortunately the third time is the dullest. This version of Clara is sadly, not that interesting. Her back story is that of a girl who lost her mother at a young age. Her personal story is not as intriguing as the souffle girl who tried to fight the Daleks for a year, or the mysterious governess who doubled as a serving wench when it suited her purposes. Jenna Louise Coleman is a fine actress and she embraces her role with gusto, but she is not given much to work with except for the usual companion functions of asking questions and getting into trouble.

The primary difficulty with Clara is that we’ve already seen her meet the Doctor twice before, and both of those times carried more emotional impact and set up a more interesting character. Oswin’s cheerfulness in the face of danger and Victorian Clara’s fairytale climb up the ladder to the TARDIS were far more compelling than anything we saw in this episode. Couple this with a very non-scary villain and you have an episode which at best is a below-average but mildly fun adventure story. I truly hope that Clara’s story will turn out to be more intriguing than its start. Certainly Ms. Coleman deserves better.


“The Bells of St. John” gets Two and a Half Acorns out of Five!

Of Lightsabers and Lens Flares

J.J. Arabs has officially signed on to direct the next Star Wars film.

First, let me state the obvious: he will probably do a lot better than Lucas did on the prequels. That said, I have to say that his work on Star Trek is pretty much like a hot girl cosplaying a character she knows nothing about. It’s slick, attractive and sexy, but there’s something missing. Abrams nailed the relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy and delivered a thrilling action story, but he missed on one of the best (and hardest) things about Star Trek: in the end, it’s about learning to settle differences without violence. In the original series, Kirk went out of his way to avoid killing whenever possible. He spared the Gorn, refused to shoot a man in cold blood (Wyatt Earp, actually, go fig) and never once during the entire three seasons did he kill a klingon captain. The flashy explody stuff came much later, with “Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek III”. Not surprisingly, other than “Khan”, the best of the movies were “The Voyage Home”, which was about whales, and “The Undiscovered Country”, which was about brokering a peace with the Klingons. Star Trek at its heart is about finding a way to make peace.

Now witness this bit of dialogue from Abrams:

Spock: Captain, what are you doing?
Kirk: Spock, showing them compassion might go a long way to promoting peace between us and the Romulans. It’s logic, I thought you’d like that.
Spock: No, not really. Not this time.
Nero: I would rather suffer the end of Romulus a thousand times. I would rather die in agony, than accept assistance from you!
Kirk: You got it. Arm phasers, fire everything we’ve got.

So much for the quality of mercy. Sure, there’s a kind of halfhearted attempt, but the end is so bloodthirsty that it undercuts it completely.

Compare this to a scene from the original series:

Kirk: We are standing by to beam your survivors aboard. Prepare to abandon your vessel.
Romulan Commander: No…no…it is not our way. I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.
Kirk: What purpose will it serve to die?
Romulan Commander: We are creatures of duty, Captain. I have lived my life by it. Just one more duty to perform.

What worries me the most about Abrams and Star Wars is that while he does deliver on action, he falls short on heart. One of the elements that has been missing from the prequels is the wisdom of Obi-Wan and Yoda. There are no scenes where the young warrior gains greater understanding. Yoda’s speech before he raises Luke’s fighter is a prime example of what I’m talking about. I’m afraid that in Abram’s hands we will get what we’ve always gotten: a flashy, fun popcorn movie that turns one of the most compelling elements of the series into a form of magic. No wisdom, no enlightenment, only a cool way of throwing stuff around. Granted, Abrams will still deliver a quality film, but it won’t be perfect, and it might just miss out on a large part of what made Star Wars so interesting.

Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: The Power of Three

With the Power of Three we are one step closer to the end of Amy and Rory’s journey. And yet, so much of that journey remains undocumented. Amy tells the Doctor that they have spent 10 years of their lives traveling with him, which has not only put them out of synch with the real world, but with their legions of fans as well.

This episode documents the “Year of the Slow Invasion”, when Earth is bombarded by millions of cubes whose only function appears to be as a novelty item. The cubes arrive one day and do nothing…which frustrates the Doctor to no end. He leaves Amy, Rory, and dad Brian to watch the cubes, letting them get on with their lives while he runs off and has adventures on his own. Along the way, the Doctor meets the daughter of an old friend; Kate Stewart, daughter of the Brigadier and now in charge of UNIT.

The story itself is fast-paced to the point of being frenetic. Despite the long incubation period experienced by the characters, the action and cuts give the story a quickened feeling that often leaves the viewer a bit frazzled. That said, there are tons of loveable fan moments. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart is ably played by Jemma Redgrave, and Mark Williams is eminently adorable as Brian. The Doctor’s heart-to-heart with Amy about why he spends so much time with the Ponds is honest and touching, and the chemistry between Amy and Rory feels fully developed as they struggle between real life and Doctor life.

My major problem with this episode, and with the season as a whole, is that everything feels so rushed. We know that there are so many adventures that we have not seen, and yet here we are at the end of Amy and Rory’s time, and we end up with a rushed half-season that feels like watching their adventures on fast forward. We don’t get the sense of continuity that we have had with previous companions. Instead we are teased with hints about what we’ve been missing, and as a fan of Amy and Rory I can’t help but feel a bit cheated.

All things being equal, the episode is still one of the best of this season, and probably one of the best of Amy and Rory’s tenure. I only wish we could have gotten a full season with the Ponds; one that did not have a continued storyline and that gave us more of a sense of the amount of time they have really spent with the Doctor. Maybe we will see some flashbacks down the road, but still, I can’t help but feel that we’ve been short changed, and that’s a sad thing to do to one of the best set of companions the series has ever known.

“The Power of Three” gets Three and a Half Acorns out of Five!

Geeksquirrel’s Nutty Review: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

With a title like that, did anyone really expect much more than what we got?  This was a terribly fun episode filled with cool moments but lacking in substance and occasionally logic.  The Doctor is still traveling on his own, but still drops in to scoop up the Ponds for an adventure.  This time, however, the Doctor has brought in a gang of assistants in the form of Amy, Rory, a big game hunter named Riddell, Queen Nefertiti of Egypt and last but not least, Rory’s dad, Arthur Weasley. 

Several well known guest stars appear in this episode.  In addition to Mark Williams as Rory’s Dad, we get David Bradley; yet another Harry Potter alumnus who plays a cold and calculating villain named Soloman.  We also get Rupert Graves, aka Inspector LeStrade of “Sherlock” fame, as Riddell the hunter.  There’s also a bunch of dinosaurs.

The story itself is pretty silly and merely an excuse for some occasionally funny character moments.  Both Amy and Rory get to do cool stuff, with Riddell and “Neffi” not always succeeding to make an impression among the crowded cast.  Rory’s dad fares the best among them, although even his moments come across as rushed amid the chaotic action.  The trouble with so many good actors vying for attention is that not everyone gets to shine, and character moments between Rory and his dad are sacrificed in favor of dinosaur/robot chase sequences.  Still, the senior Mr. Williams does a good job of expressing both the wonder and confusion of his son’s travel habits, and the end of the episode features a lovely quiet scene where involving watching the Earth while enjoying a sandwich and a cuppa.

One interesting development in the episode is the Doctor’s dispatching of the villain.  Soloman is a greedy mass murdering, kidnapping thief who deserves his punishment, but it has been a very long time since the Doctor has been this ruthless, and one can’t help but wonder how that bodes for the future.

“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” gets Three Acorns out of Five!

Geek Squirrel’s Nutty Review: Asylum of the Daleks

After a very long absence, the time-traveling Time Lord has returned to our homes like that quirky, weird house guest who sometimes makes your life complicated, but never, ever boring.  Last week we were treated to a series of shorts featuring the Doctor’s companions, who, much like the fans, have tried to establish a normal existence in the absence of the Doctor.  And again, like the fans, Amy and Rory’s Doctor-lite existence is punctuated by a few sudden appearances that serve to both stun and confuse them.  It’s much like getting all those sudden news flashes over the past year….you know, the announcement of the new companion, Matt Smith carrying the torch, the Doctor Who tribute that never materialized during the Olympics, the sneaky TARDIS sound during the opening ceremonies…all of those little appearances that just made you want to crave more.

Sadly, Pond Life is not all sunshine and crickets.  Despite the brief addition of their very own Ood (designation Ood Alfred), Amy and Rory appear to be on the outs, and by the last mini-episode they have apparently split up.  The Doctor, returning home like a child back from summer vacation, begins to suspect that all is not well with mummy and daddy-in-law.  Such is the state of affairs when the curtain rises on the Asylum.

There’s brief prequel where the Doctor receives a message from what appears to be a Headless Monk.  The monk communicates in a dream, forcing the Doctor to accept a mission to Skaro, the ancient home of the Daleks. It is there that he encounters a distraught woman who attempts to convince him to rescue her daughter from a Dalek prison camp.  Well surprise, apparently the Daleks have taken a page out of the cyberman/borg playbook, and have started to convert human beings into their mindless agents.  Two more Dalekborgs kidnap Amy and Rory on the same day they finalize their divorce, and just like that, we are swept into the Parliament of the Daleks.

It seems the Doctor’s oldest enemies have a bit of a problem.  Their storage planet of defective models has been breached by a starliner, and since even Daleks won’t fight crazy, they have collected their most deadly adversary and intend to shoot him at the planet so he can turn off the force field that surrounds it, so the Daleks can blast it Death Star style and end their problem.

But wait, there’s more…it seems the sole survivor is a plucky young lass named Oswin, played by *SURPRISE* Jenna Louise Coleman.  Remember that new companion they announced?  Remember that?  Well be prepared to have your mind blown people, because the Grand Moffat has it targeted with a laser set to OMG!!!!

The remainder of the story is filled with action, suspense, and Daleks of every make and model.  Each of the main cast members gets to shine, especially Rory Williams, who survives on his own for several minutes and even gets a bit of flirt action from his eventual successor.  For her part, Oswin displays a confident charm and intelligence that makes you want to root for her from the get-go.

Regrettably, the biggest problem of the episode lies in the circumstances of Amy and Rory’s divorce.  The split between the two is the most traumatic event in the lead-up to the new series, but it is patched up in a few minutes thanks to yet another clever psychological trick by the Doctor.  Amy’s reasons for dumping Rory are based on her experiences at Demon’s Run, which were not only a violation of her body but have also resulted in sterility.  Her inability to have another child, and most likely her feelings of unworthiness, were the reasons for the split.  These are huge problems, and yet they are resolved within a few minutes, completely defusing what could otherwise have been a source of tension throughout the remainder of the series.  In the real world, marital problems are not so easily solved, and having the Doctor come in and fix everything is akin to wish fulfillment.  One could imagine a child of a broken marriage hoping that the Doctor would come and fix his parents, but the real world is never that easy.

Be that as it may, the first episode has definitely accomplished a great deal.  It has, for the first time in a long while, made the Daleks scary again, if only for this one instance.  The idea of faulty, deranged Daleks running around in tunnels, accompanied by human husks that have been turned into their servants, makes for some scary moments.   In the end, however, the human/Dalek hybrids are no more than a different form of cyberman or borg, with the same underlying fear.  The only difference is that rather than being turned into a mindless automaton, their victims retain a level of cold, emotionless personality, unable to remember the things the loved the most.    The biggest and best surprise is Jenna Louise Coleman, who not only manages to prove herself as a worthy successor to Amy and Rory, but whose introduction has given fans a bigger mystery to solve than the identity of River Song.

“Asylum of the Daleks” gets 4 acorns out of 5!