Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Star Trek Discovery (Season 2)

Circumstances beyond my control had me set aside my Trek blog, and my thoughts on Discovery's second season is long overdue. I had a good time watching this season, and felt that in a lot of ways the show reconnected with its roots. My review of the first season was well received, so I thought I would stick with the format and do the same for season 2. So, without further ado, here we go!

The Good

  • Captain Christopher Pike - Anson Mount was, for me at least, the standout star of the season. He breathed life into a character that for too long has been more of a footnote of what might have been. Captain Pike was, as I am sure you are aware, the first captain of the Enterprise in the original pilot episode "The Cage". First portrayed by the late Jeffery Hunter, Pike was supposed to be the leading man. When the network demanded that the show be completely overhauled, Pike was out. He was brought back in two-part story "The Menagerie" where it was revealed that he was severely injured in an accident. The character was brought back in the J.J. Abrams reboot films and played well by Bruce Greenwood, but Anson Mount's portrayal gave us a captain that lived up to all the hype that has been given throughout Trek's history. I loved how his fate was foreshadowed, and it added even more depth to an already beloved character.

  • Secondary Character Backstories - As listed in "The Bad" from season 1, I mentioned how I would have liked some more information on some of the secondary characters, such as Airiam, Demeter, Owosekum, and Rhys. Well, we got them, or at least for some of them. We learned little things about some of them (past relationships, some family history, and even some of the trials that they have faced in life), and I enjoyed that. Yet, while we were able to get more from these interesting characters along the lines of dialogue and past history, I couldn't help but feel that we should be getting more. Having said this, it was a step in the right direction, and I appreciated what was given, but there was something about this development that gave me cause for concern, but more on that in a moment.

  • Reconnecting with the Roots of Trek - One of the biggest complaints and concerns voiced about Discovery was that it just did not feel like Star Trek, even though it was set in the era of the original series timeline. With the arrival of Pike and the Enterprise (complete with the more familiar, yet updated, colored uniforms) and moving away from the war, we had a return to what many felt like was the way that Trek used to be. Yes, we still have one continuous story being told over multiple episodes, but that is more of a product of television in the current day of binge-watching on demand. The mood was lighter than last season, with more time to explore the happier side of the human condition. Season 1 dealt with war, so the mood had to be darker. Here, we see more social interactions and care and compassion. As an example, look at the episode "An Obol for Charon" and the strong bond depicted between Burnham and Saru. This is what Trek is all about. We also had footage from "The Cage" and a re-introduction to the Talosians and Vina, the woman who fell in love with Pike. 

  • She's Number One! - Majel Barrett was the original Number One, Pike's unnamed female first officer. For Discovery, she was played by Rebecca Romijn. This was a brilliant casting choice, and Romijn was fantastic. She channeled Majel Barrett's take on the character well, making it her own but still staying true to the essence of the original. It reminded me of Karl Urban's portrayal of McCoy in the Kelvinverse films. And, like Captain Pike, Number One was given more depth to her character. I loved how everyone still called her "Number One", and only once was a name for her given (Una, which could have been her first name or a nickname, depending on who you ask), which continued the secretive tradition of her character. 

The Bad
  • The Development Towards Death - In other popular television programs today that feature a large ensemble of characters facing life-or-death struggles, there seems to be a recurring theme. As some of the secondary characters begin to be developed, it soon became apparent that the motivation was to build up the audience's connection to that character so that when said character was killed, the emotional payoff would be greater. This has been reported in many shows, such as "Lost" and "The Walking Dead". I mentioned in "The Good" section that I liked that the background characters were brought into the foreground more, and the one that received the most attention was Airiam. We learned that she was human who was given cybernetic augmentation after a devastating accident that claimed the life of her husband. Learning about this was wonderful, and then they had her corrupted by Control and subsequently killed. Now, I am not opposed to killing off popular characters in order to elicit an emotional response from the fans, but I am worried that Discovery is heading down a frustrating road. Yes, I want the supporting characters developed, and no, they should not be immune to tragedy and even death. I just have a problem with building up a character with the sole purpose of killing them off being over-used. First, it becomes lazy on the part of the writers. Second, it is predictable. We as the audience will spot it coming as soon as Owo or Rhys gets more attention being given. And finally, the more it is used, the less effective it becomes in eliciting the desired emotional response. I hope that this was more of a one-and-done use of the plot device, giving us a chance to develop the other characters without it meaning their eventual demise. 

  • Sometimes Dead is Better - Doctor Hugh Culber was a favorite character of mine, and his surprising death in Season 1 broke my heart. Hearing that Culber would return in one way or another left me feeling hopeful about him, but I have to admit that I was left feeling confused and underwhelmed when it was almost all said and done. I found his resurrection to be odd. By the end of the season, I was still scratching my head with why and how Culber was back. As much as I loved the character, and as intrigued I am with what this means for one of my favorite relationships on the show, I can't help but feel that maybe he should have stayed deceased. It is my hope that in the third season this will feel better.

  • Section 31 - What I loved about Section 31 when it was first introduced in Deep Space Nine was that it was a covert, rogue element of Starfleet that was hidden in myth and legend. It worked in the shadows and was unknown to many. In this season, it became a branch of Starfleet that almost everyone knew about. Thankfully, with Control decimating Section 31, it appears that it has been pushed back into the shadows, and thereby staying true to canon, but I still felt that by making it such a prominent and established organization that acted in the open with its own fleet of vessels, I felt that the menace that was Section 31 was severely lessened. 

The Ugly
  • Spock's Beard - This is more tongue-in-cheek, but wow, that beard of Spock's was distracting at times. Yes, I know, he was on the run and had spent time in prison and couldn't get to a razor, but it was so unkempt that it just made me laugh at times. I was happy in the final episode when the character was finally able to shave it off. 

  • Trolls, Trolls, and More Trolls - Well, I had hoped that the second season of Discovery would lead to fewer trolls stalking the internet, and yet I should not be surprised that as the second season rolled out the trolls were still there. Some of them seemed to have left, but the ones that remain are as vocal as ever. I should point out that this is not a slam on those who offer valid criticisms and bring up some good points. Nor does it slam those who hate the show yet let those who like it live in peace. No, this is for those who for some strange reason have nothing better to do with their lives than go full nuclear every time somebody has the audacity to post that they like the show. Go away trolls, and in the immortal words of William Shatner: "Get a life!"

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Remembering Aron Eisenberg, Jack Donner, and Sid Haig

September 21, 2019 was a sad day for Star Trek. We lost three actors who contributed to our beloved franchise: Jack Donner, Sid Haig, and Aron Eisenberg. 

Jack Donner was 90 years old. In the Trek universe, he was best known as the Romulan subcommander Tal in the Original Series episode "The Enterprise Incident". He also appeared as a Vulcan priest in the Enterprise episodes "Home" and "Kir'Sharra". Outside of Star Trek he founded the Oxford Theatre in Los Angeles, an acting school that saw among its many students the likes of Don Johnson and Craig T. Nelson. The intensity he brought to the role of Tal helped establish the lasting impression that the Romulans would have in Trek. 

Sid Haig was 80 years old. In Star Trek, he was the First Lawgiver in the episode "Return of the Archons". Outside of Trek, he will likely be known for his role of Captain Spaulding in the horror classic "House of 1000 Corpses" and has a long resume of horror and B films.

Aron Eisenberg was 50 years old, and leaves behind a wife, Malissa Longo, and two sons, Lawrence and Christopher. He is best known for his role as Nog, son of Rom, nephew of Quark, and the first Ferengi to enter Starfleet. He also played Kar, a Kazon in an episode of Voyager. He was also an avid photographer and had written short stories for the popular fantasy series Dragonlance. 

As much as I would like to make this an equal tribute to all three actors, each one having given much to the acting profession, I feel I can only do some justice to Aron. I had the opportunity to meet with him at the Las Vegas Star Trek convention in 2016. So, with all the respect to Mr Dinner and Mr Haig, the remainder of this post will be focused on Aron's contribution to Star Trek. 

Aron Eisenberg was kind and generous with his fans. He was very active in the convention circuits, and I will fondly remember the time I got to speak with him. I asked him about his writing for Dragonlance, a series I loved as a teenager. It turned out that we had that in common, as he mentioned that while he was a youth he was often in the hospital (Aron was born with one kidney, and had two transplants in his life), and the Dragonlance series was something that he found solace in. He mentioned that he was discussing the possibility of a live action film or TV series of the Dragonlance saga, and that he hoped to play the popular character of Tasselhoff Burrfoot. That, incidentally, would have been a perfect casting choice. 

It is always difficult to separate an actor and their most famous roles. For Aron, he will always be Nog to most of us. When we were first introduced to Nog, he was getting into trouble with the law (i.e. Odo), and he served as a reason for Sisko to convince/blackmail Quark to remain on the station. Little did we know how much this character would mean for the show and its cast of delightful characters. Nog quickly became friends with Jake, and the two got into their fair share of mischief across the station. As they grew up, it ended up being Nog who would go to Starfleet Academy, and Jake would stay on the station. Nog became a cadet, then an Ensign, and finally Lieutenant as Sisko's last official act.

His character, while only appearing in 44 episodes, became so heavily developed. Some would argue that he had better development than Jake Sisko did (although the two characters were often closely connected in each other's develpment). One of my favorite Nog episodes/stories was in "Heart of Stone", where Nog tried to convince Commander Sisko to sponsor his application to Starfleet Academy. This scene was the first time that we saw some great depth in Nog's character and was the first of many powerful performances by Aron. His desire to join, stemming from his own father not living up to Ferengi standards and not using his engineering talents for better use, pushed Nog to become more than his father was. It was the final push he needed for Sisko to grant him his desire, and off Nog went to the academy.

It's hard to talk about Nog without mentioning his personal loss during the Dominion War. In the episode "The Siege of AR-558", after months of exemplary military service, Nog was severely injured by the Jem'Hadar. His injury resulted in the loss of his leg. As important as that episode was to Nog's character, it only sets us up for the most powerful Nog episode in "It's Only a Paper Moon". It is this episode where Nog faces the emotional trauma that his physical trauma incurred upon him. In a rare episode where the focus was on two secondary characters (Nog and holographic crooner Vic Fontaine), Nog takes us on a journey of self-healing. We see the impact on traumatic events and how easy it is to lose ourselves in the search to escape the pain. Nog brought the realities of war close to home for us, and started some important discussion of PTSD. Nog not only survived the horrors of war, but the horrors of war's consequences. Again, Aron's abilities as an actor shone like a bright star in this episode, and James Darren as Vic Fontaine plays brilliantly with Eisenberg here. This episode, more than any other, showcased Aron's abilities as an actor and artist.

Circling back to my conversation with Aron three years ago, I think about how we parted. He thanked me for asking about the projects he was working on. I thanked him for his contribution to Star Trek. I feel that represents how the relationship between him and his fans was. We thank him for his contributions to a beloved character, and he thanks us for our love towards him. While I only had a brief glimpse into who Aron Eisenberg was, I feel confident from the tributes that have poured in over the last few days that Aron Eisenberg brought love to many around him. He will be missed at conventions and fan expos, and he will surely be missed by his close friends and family. 

May you navigate the Great River in peace.

To support Aron's wife raise funds for his funeral, please click the following link.