Tag Archives: outer space

10 Beloved Star Trek: TNG Episodes

I recently finished watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Only seasons 3-7, I should add, after I was loudly and repeatedly warned away from the first two.) I loved the show as a kid, and I had a lot of fun revisiting it with adult eyes, seeing wisdom and thematic depth I’d never realized were there—although, that said, my basic reaction hasn’t changed much since age 11: “Ooh, cool space adventures!” It is, wonderfully, a show that can be enjoyed both as literary sci-fi and as spectacle, even if its low-budget special effects invariably lagged light-years behind its ideas. Uneven as its run may have been, TNG was broad in scope, huge in ambition, and usually an entertaining hour of TV.

So I figured I might as well write about a handful of my favorite episodes. I chose to leave off iconic favorites like “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Best of Both Worlds,” “The Drumhead,” and “The Inner Light,” because I feel like by now they’ve been praised nearly to death. (Though it bears repeating that “The Inner Light” is just stunningly good. As is “Chain of Command,” for that matter.) Instead, I selected ten episodes that may not yet have received their due, but which thrilled me, intrigued me, and moved me more than I expected…

(I’ve listed the seasons and episode numbers after each title. And if these aren’t enough, here are five more that almost made my list: “The Hunted,” “Remember Me,” “Disaster,” “Relics,” and “Parallels.”)

"The Survivors" (S3E3)

“The Survivors” (S3E3)

This episode has all the economy and power of a classic sci-fi short story. Nothing superfluous: just a near-deserted planet, a pair of elderly guest stars, and a wrenching twist. The Enterprise gets involved, of course, and Picard employs some deductive reasoning to unravel the planet’s mystery, but “The Survivors” is primarily about its title characters, the Uxbridges—about the intensity of their love, and husband Kevin’s commitment to nonviolence. Through them, the episode investigates ethical concerns already familiar to TNG viewers, but in an unusually thought- and emotion-provoking manner.

"The Most Toys" (S3E22)

“The Most Toys” (S3E22)

As an android, Data’s fundamentally different from every other character on the show, and that difference was exploited by many solid episodes, with “Brothers,” “Hero Worship,” and “Thine Own Self” high among them. But I prefer “The Most Toys,” where he’s imprisoned by obsessive collector Kivas Fajo, played by Saul Rubinek. The relationship between the dickish Fajo and his emotionless captor makes for meaty drama, as well as an object lesson in Data’s personhood and unshakable moral high ground. And the ending, wherein Data tells Riker a chilling white lie, is icing on an already delicious cake. (…with mint frosting)

"Sarek" (S3E23)

“Sarek” (S3E23)

This is how you draw on ancient franchise history, courtesy of a script by fantasy legend Peter S. Beagle. Bringing back Mark Lenard as Spock’s father, now a wizened ambassador, “Sarek” throws the Enterprise into the middle of a diplomatic crisis and the outbreak of an emotional epidemic, then ties them both to a tragic metaphor for Alzheimer’s and the ravages of age. Rarely has the loss of self-control been illustrated as starkly as it is in Lenard’s agonized performance and in Patrick Stewart’s ferocious breakdown scene, both of which grant startling rawness to such an elegant episode.

"The Mind's Eye" (S4E24)

“The Mind’s Eye” (S4E24)

Geordi is maybe the most lovable character in TNG: friendly, hard-working, and incredibly nerdy. So it’s disturbing to see him thrust into the Manchurian Candidate scenario of “The Mind’s Eye,” programmed by the Romulans to be a perfect assassin and saboteur. The episode takes the form of a procedural, with Geordi leading an investigation into espionage he doesn’t realize he’s comitting, and Data gradually piecing the clues together. “The Mind’s Eye” is a tense and sharply written hour which expertly raises the stakes by playing on the audience’s built-in fondness for its characters.

“Redemption” (S4E26/S5E1)

TNG, for a variety of reasons, was never especially good at “epic.” It’s not for nothing that most of these episodes are small, intimate, and Enterprise-centric. But with the two-part “Redemption,” they at least gave it a shot, forcing Worf to resolve his divided loyalties as the Klingon empire explodes into civil war. The Romulans are involved again, and the plotting’s a little too busy, but nonetheless it’s fun to watch Picard navigate his own conflicts of interest, or Data take command for the first time. Between the convoluted interstellar politics and Worf’s identity crisis, “Redemption” is the show going big in a way I can’t resist.

"Darmok" (S5E2)

“Darmok” (S5E2)

This episode delivers the pleasure of Patrick Stewart acting opposite Paul Winfield, who plays an alien captain trapped with Picard in the wilderness. It also has the Enterprise crew doing what it does best, i.e. devoting all their expertise to a big, vexing problem. But it’s on this list for one big reason, which is its unforgettable conceit: that the alien’s race communicates solely through culturally specific metaphors. Like all great sci-fi, “Darmok” makes me reexamine my world; it encourages me to ponder just how strange and impressive an achievement language itself really is.

"Cause and Effect" (S5E18)

“Cause and Effect” (S5E18)

This is the “Groundhog Day… in space!” episode, one of my favorite “fun” episodes (along with “Clues” and “Conundrum”) and one which toys with TNG’s bread and butter: some weird phenomena is affecting the Enterprise, and the crew has to figure out what, then stop it from killing everyone. The narrative structure here is unusually experimental, the gradual discovery of the time loop is very satisfying, and the cold open is probably the most memorable of the show’s run. Nothing too weighty here, but it’s fleet and imaginative just like good genre fiction should be.

"Face of the Enemy" (S6E14)

“Face of the Enemy” (S6E14)

This one really shocked me. Its premise, with Counselor Troi forced onto an undercover mission aboard a Romulan vessel, is certainly tantalizing, but in execution it’s a masterpiece of rising tension. (Admittedly, I might just be especially susceptible to stories like this; I spent roughly half the episode physically shaking.) Watching Troi bluff her way through a high-pressure mission provides no end of pleasure, as does seeing her go toe to toe with Carolyn Seymour as the ship’s unyielding captain. Few TNG episodes develop an atmosphere of danger quite as thick as the one in “Face of the Enemy.”

"Lessons" (S6E19)

“Lessons” (S6E19)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, here’s a rare episode that’s quiet, tender, even Ozu-esque. The slender story is that of two middle-aged professionals (Picard and Nella Daren, played by Wendy Hughes) who meet one night, slowly become interested in one another, play some duets—she on piano, he on his “Inner Light” flute—and fall in love. It’s a little awkward, especially since he has his “gruff captain” persona to maintain, but they push through any workplace difficulties… until duty forces him to endanger her life, and they decide a break-up would be for the best. It’s sensitively handled, unlike so many TNG romances, and a precious glimpse at Enterprise life in between big missions.

"Preemptive Strike" (S7E24)

“Preemptive Strike” (S7E24)

Finally, here’s the second-to-last episode of the whole series. It’s a story that could only have been told so late in the show’s run, reversing our POV so we can experience the Enterprise and the Federation from the outside looking in. Using Ro Laren, a recurring character known to bristle at authority, the episode turns morality on its head and tacitly asks that we empathize with terrorists. It’s a daring gambit, and it’s tough to imagine a show pulling it off outside of a sci-fi context. Like many of the episodes listed here, “Preemptive Strike” acknowledges that sometimes, the right thing to do is anything but obvious.

Leave a comment

Filed under Media

Link Dump: #63

Following up last week’s Jean Vigo kitty, we have one from Vigo’s short À propos de Nice. It’s just sitting by a sewer grate in Nice, when all of a sudden, there’s Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman! And now it’s immortalized in film history. Yay kitty! Now here are some links:

We had a smattering of fantastic, strange search terms this past week. Like “docters do the opration of chute pussy.” Or the very valid inquiry “why is it called porn and not something else”? Imagine a world where it’s not called porn. Just imagine it! And lastly, “google to sex women to women love firends both lesbian gether weddnig pussy pussy in is the moives.” Jesus, that’s an epic search term!

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Politics

Bowie the Freaky Spaceman

And you thought David Bowie looked weird in real life! In Nicolas Roeg’s psychedelic sci-fi landmark The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), he takes it all off, including his skin, hair, and irises. He’s a spaceman who’s supposed to be raising money so he can go deliver water to his home planet, but instead he gets distracted by TV, alcohol, and having sex with Candy Clark. He ends up as a fedora-wearing recluse while Candy Clark ends up married to rocket scientist Rip Torn; at least they got to experience plenty of bizarre imagery along the way. Like weird volcano bodies! And Bowie’s dying alien family! And Buck Henry with coke-bottle glasses!

The movie’s edited for maximum confusion, and it swallows its own narrative tail a few times. But hey, it’s from Nicolas Roeg, the visionary who brought us a Borgesian bullet hole through Mick Jagger’s head and a dwarf in a red raincoat stabbing Donald Sutherland. Would you expect anything less? If you want to learn more, I’ve got a review of The Man Who Fell to Earth up at 366 Weird Movies. Despite all the film’s missteps, you can’t deny that casting Bowie as an extraterrestrial was a major casting coup. I’ll conclude with one of my favorite images from the film, which proves that for all his pretension and self-indulgence, Roeg sure knew how to photograph the human body…

3 Comments

Filed under Body, Cinema

Link Dump: #14

Since Ashley insisted that I couldn’t choose kitty pictures anymore, the above image of Scar and the obnoxiously playful Simba is her pick. And a great pick it is! Scar is a deliciously, mincingly evil villain, probably more charismatic than Claudius, the Shakespearean usurper on whom he’s based. And of course that’s all because of Jeremy Irons, whose voice trumps any hackneyed dialogue or fickle hyenas. When cartoon Jeremy Irons says “Jump!”, you ask, “How high?” With that, I give you this week’s links.

  • Courtesy of Mary Ray of The Bewitched, I found out about this awesome 4th Amendment apparel – for when you want to stick it to the (TSA) man in writing.
  • Amanda Palmer’s vulva is NSFW art!
  • Here’s another awesome Tumblr blog called Screen Goddesses.
  • Apparently all (or at least most) of the planets have been featured in sci-fi literature. The more you know!
  • Robert C. Cumbow wrote an essay about one of Hitchcock’s greatest, Vertigo (1958). Give it a read; it’s very sharp.
  • From The Sheila Variations, here’s a piece about Ann Savage in Detour, easily one of the greatest femmes fatales ever.
  • Imogen Smith wrote a long, fantastic essay about Pre-Code movies, complete with Joan Blondell in a bathtub.
  • Dan Callahan attacked the “Rich Girl Cinema” of Sofia Coppola and Lena Dunham in Slant; then Cinetrix fired back by saying, “I enjoy being a girl.”
  • An inventive YouTube user mashed up Edgar Wright’s first three films into one awesome trailer. How can one director pack in that much pure awesome?
  • As part of the drive to raise Vincent Price awareness, a really cool blogger & graphic designer named Eric Slager made this snazzy poster of Price’s face adorned with the titles of his many films. (Via Classic-Horror.com.)
  • Sight & Sound announces its critical favorites for 2010! Unsurprisingly, The Social Network and Uncle Boonmee top the list. (Pssst: I’ll have some 2010 film lists of my own in the near future.)

Alas, we’ve had no astoundingly bizarre search terms as of late (unless you count more requests for Simpsons porn). Someone searched for “tom waits poster,” for which Ashley recommends this. (Tom Waits is lovably grizzled and makes excellent poster fodder.) Another searched for “witch burning in movies,” for which I offer the spellbinding, terrifying witch-burning sequence in the middle of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1958). And finally, “hanged cat film.” That’s no good. In keeping with our feline blog name, we’re launching a campaign against cat violence here. Seriously, people: end the kitty bloodshed. Meow.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Feminism, Politics

Screwball Sci-fi in The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element (1997) is a mixed bag of a movie: it has a lot to offer, but it’s very strangely packaged, and there’s a lot of extraneous fluff. It bounces back and forth between the self-serious heroism and romance that constitute its weaker parts, and the free-floating punk/screwball sensibility that makes it unique. Reportedly, Besson began writing the screenplay while he was in high school, and it shows in the convoluted mythology and the derivative, somewhat generic structure and conflicts of the film’s futuristic universe.

However, the film also has some moments of odd beauty and very satisfying comedy, plus one-of-a-kind visual design by two French artists – Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières – who had been featured in Métal Hurlant, the predecessor to America’s Heavy Metal. At its best, The Fifth Element possesses some of the same traits that made Heavy Metal so great: a rich, bawdy sense of humor; a national and cultural eclecticism; and a willingness to tweak age-old sci-fi tropes in new ways. Overall, it’s not really successful, but it hits some great peaks along the way.

The plot of The Fifth Element is anything but simple, concerned as it is with at least 4-5 different self-interested factions each seeking the same set of four elemental stones. According to a sketched-out secret history wherein aliens occasionally visit Egypt, a “Great Evil” threatens earth every 5,000 years, and only an ultimate weapon made up of all five elements can save it. (The title is dropped with a resounding thud at least six times during the prologue.) Long story short: taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has to shepherd the fifth-element-in-physical form, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), to a resort planet to fetch the stones.

They’re aided by a bungling high priest (Ian Holm) and a hyperactive radio super-personality (Chris Tucker). They’re opposed by a band of extraterrestrial mercenaries as well as their erstwhile employer, a nutty plutocrat named Zorg, played with a strangely southern accent and the world’s weirdest haircut by the great Gary Oldman. Yeah, it really is “that kind of movie.” Brion James (Blade Runner‘s Leon) is there as the earth general who recruits Dallas; even La Haine director and Amélie star Mathieu Kassovitz shows up as a jittery would-be mugger.

This is not a subtle movie. When Willis and Jovovich are giving the most restrained performances, you know you’re in dangerous territory. The Fifth Element is basically a live-action cartoon in the Looney Tunes mold, with all the visual hyperbole and frenetic action that entails. When Holm’s priest is startled, he literally topples over backwards – as sure as if he’d been Elmer Fudd whacked with a mallet. Oldman and Tucker (the latter especially) are both completely unhinged, madly overacting in a curiously compelling way. If nothing else, Tucker’s mile-a-minute spiel and proto-Gaga costumes are unlikely to be matched by any other movie – and his performance is almost plausible as a 23rd century media personality.

Clearly, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for cartoon physics and outrageously quirky acting. Oldman and Tucker also tread the very thin line between “eccentric” and “grating,” and Tucker occasionally, if fearlessly, crosses over it. Similarly, the movie’s frames are very cluttered; in Besson’s quasi-dystopian future, there’s always something going on, be it in the costuming, set design, or special effects. Some of this busyness can be delightful, while other components are less endearing. All of it, to varying degrees, is ridiculous.

With all of these oddball characters floating around, The Fifth Element does have some truly funny scenes (e.g., “Multipass?”) that end up playing out like a Star Wars spoof crossed with Bringing Up Baby. (Holm, who played another [less benevolent] advisor in Alien, could pass for a neurotic Obi-Wan Kenobi.) By the time we’re watching a blue-skinned, tentacle-headed diva sing an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, the movie has almost found profundity in its genre-splicing, special-effects-filled surface.

So the real shame is the ending: it goes on far too long, it loses the raw, funny edge, and it devolves into a meaningless last-minute lecture on the evils of war and the power of love; it even begins to take its nonsensical back story seriously. It’s really disappointing when a movie’s epic climax turns out to be surprisingly rote and anticlimactic. But you know what? The Fifth Element is still better than Total Recall and a lot of other planet-hopping movies of that ilk. It’s still got all of Besson’s loony characters running into each other, wearing impractically garish outfits while North Africa-influenced techno plays in the background.

In short: at least it’s still interesting. It may not be an especially smart or consistent movie, but I’ll take Besson’s brand of colorful, multinational, imaginative sci-fi over the tedious sameness of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay anyday. And the weird, loaded cast doesn’t hurt, either. So, is The Fifth Element really a “good” movie? Not as such. But it’s still highly enjoyable and even a little bit stylistically subversive. What do you think? Have you seen the movie, or do you want to?

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Images of Wild, Wild Planet

I recently entered the 366 Weird Movies June review writing contest; you can check out my review here. However, if you’re more visually-inclined, I have a treat for you: more screenshots from this bastion of Italian sci-fi weirdness, Wild, Wild Planet. Enjoy!

This last image might be my favorite, if only because of the dialogue that immediately follows it:

[The officer on Mike’s right tries to touch the mutant.]

Scientist: No, don’t touch it!

Officer: Why not?

Scientist: I’m not certain, but… don’t touch it.

All this after Mike and the scientist both touch it repeatedly. That planet sure is wild, wild.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Science fiction double feature, part 1

Sunday afternoon. Lazy Sunday. Gloomy Sunday. Sundays have always been kind of a day of the damned. Human emotions are cryptic, often incomprehensible phenomena. I have them, but I don’t really get them. Does anybody really understand how they work? And you know what: fuck checking in a little box to give your mood. Fuck saying, “I’m a smiley face” or “I’m a frowny face right now.” Fuck that bullshit. How are you? Oh, I’m :) at the moment. Maybe later I’ll be :(, who knows. Because the only difference between happiness and sadness is a flipped-around parenthesis. That question is our eternal bane: How are you? How are you doing? What’s up? Mind if I ask you a simple-minded question and receive an equally simple-minded answer?

Q: How are you?

A: Good.

I’m doing well. Not bad. OK. Could be worse. Mediocre. Tolerable. Eh. Whatever. Indifferent. Apathetic. Dead to the world. Heading for a breakdown. Etc., etc., et fucking cetera. Day-to-day casual exchanges can get really boring. But what can you do? That’s the ridiculous way we interact. Us silly fucking human beings. Perpetually unable to differentiate between the trivial and the important. And after all, what is the difference? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure; one man’s boring bullshit is another man’s fact of vital significance.

The future is spread out before us like a vast invisible landscape. There are a million paths for us to take, but once we start down one, the rest of them cease to exist. This makes me recall two memories: one is asking the priest at the Catholic school I went to, in about 7th grade, about free will vs. predetermination. For example, could Judas Iscariot have not betrayed Jesus, since that’s how it was all predicted to happen? And if so, well, how is it that he could end up at the bottom of hell, as Dante claimed? The priest’s answer was basically that God can see all possible ways the future could turn out, and that’s how he can be all-knowing but we can still have free will. I’m not sure if I was satisfied with this explanation, and at this juncture, I’m not sure quite what I think of that. But along similar lines, another memory: in the X-Men cartoon I watched all the time as a child, there were numerous time travel story arcs, a few of which involved people from dystopian futures traveling back to undo the events that brought those dystopias into existing. Thereby erasing that entire alternate timeline, and everyone who exists in it. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by time travel, and said fascination is as intense as ever. Hell, I’m kind of a sci-fi junkie. Not that I obsessively read sci-fi stories or anything; just that I could spend way longer than is beneficial puzzling over various concepts and storylines from the science fiction genre. I love thinking about speculative fiction, about time travel, robots, genetic experimentation, space travel, etc. I’ve never really wanted to be an astronaut, but ever since I was brought to a planetarium as a little kid, I’ve thought about man’s place in the universe and what, exactly, it would be like to leave the earth’s atmosphere and exist in that empyrean realm we call “outer space.” An infinite gulf dominated by blackness. I’m reminded of a short film I love called Powers of Ten, made the Eames brothers; if you’ve never seen it, take 10 minutes out of your life because it’s very worth it.

Sputnik entered orbit in 1957. That’s about 52 years ago. Naturally, science fiction predates this science fact by, well, pretty much forever. That’s the beauty of human imagination. We can be primitive and have flawed ideas about how the world works – we can think, like Aristotle, that objects are trying to return home when they fall to the ground – but that doesn’t stop us from looking up at the sky and saying, “I want to go there.” Or from telling stories about doing just that. Daedalus and Icarus, you know, or Bellerophon who tried to ride Pegasus up to Olympus. Or the Tower of Babel, which tried to reach heaven. I’ve recently gotten heavily into the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and it can serve as almost a modern analogue of these ancient myths: basically, don’t fuck with the stars.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves…” – Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II

Maybe these myths are comparable to the old “There be dragons” or the fear of falling off the edge of the earth – don’t go exploring too far, you don’t know what you’re going to find. You know why we don’t have access to the stars? Because the gods don’t want us to, dammit. Or to quote Glen or Glenda, “If the creator had meant us to fly, he’d have given us wings!” If you go traipsing around in some distant galaxy, well, don’t be surprised if you piss off Zeus or if Yog-Sothoth eats you. Or if the Xenomorph clings to your face and then bursts from your chest. Or what have you. You had it coming! It’s all about the conflict between man’s fear of the unknown and our neverending curiosity and drive to learn, learn, learn! We want the mysteries of the universe, but we don’t want to take too many risks to figure them out. Well, you can’t divine the secrets of existence without breaking a few eggs. What about Dr. Faustus, the namesake of Ashley’s middle school? Sold his soul to Satan just to mess with the Pope and summon Joan of Arc and maybe learn some dark secrets along the way. And what’s the moral Lovecraft’s trying to get across? Basically: don’t even try to figure out the answer. You won’t like it if you do. It’s better to just let sleeping gods lie.

Only problem is, we’re curious fuckers. As Pandora and Adam & Eve teach us, we don’t care if it’s forbidden. That just makes us want to know even more! So, despite all our cautionary tales to the contrary, we’ve landed on the moon. We’re peering into the stars and gazing across potentially life-bearing (well, not really) planets and you know what? It’s awesome.

The Eagle Nebula

So I admit it. I love science fiction. Speaking of which, a few months back I think, Ashley and I read this great story by Robert A. Heinlein called “-All You Zombies-“; I highly recommend reading it; it’s a milestone in time travel fiction, and a great example of how fun time paradoxes can be. So, I have to go eat dinner and then work for 3 hours, but there’s a lot more I want to explore: how exactly I define sci-fi as a genre; more about how, exactly, it’s appealing; its relation to our everyday lives; etc. If I have time, I’ll launch into this more later. You know what else? Looking at the categories we have for blogs, I want to think more about synthesizing new ideas from old ones. After all, everything connects to everything else. It’s all linked under the grand umbrella of the human experience. So keep that in mind: just as John Donne says no man is an island unto himself, so no idea is an island. There’s always a peninsula.

Leave a comment

Filed under Media, Personal