Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise Is A Deeply Flawed Series But Worth Giving A Try

**I apologize for not having part II of my in-depth look at Battlestar Galactica posted yet, it should be up in the next few days (finals week and everything). I've had this article sitting finished on my computer for a while now, and it is the tenth anniversary of Enterprises' last episode (and the last of episode of any Star Trek), so I figured I'd post this in the mean time. 

Long reviled by many as the series that essentially killed Star Trek as we had known it; Enterprise has been slowly undergoing a kind of semi-rehabilitation in the fan community lately. Within Star Trek fandom there are often cycles in which something is almost universally hated for so long, that eventually a wave of contrarian backlash forms, and people will jump to its defense. The Final Frontier (Shatner's infamous vanity project) has followed this pattern at times. There is also a tendency right now for fans to “circle the wagons” in response to both JJ Trek and the current drought of Star Trek or any space based sci-fi on the small screen. The show has always had a small but devoted subset of Star Trek fans on its side, but online streaming and the general explosion of interest in nerdy cultural artifacts, has exposed ENT to a wider audience. But the series’ fans, both old and new, tend to overlook the serious flaws that kept the show teetering on the brink of cancellation.

Personally, I do find Enterprise to be refreshing stylistically, it has a "you are there" sort of feel to it, and the ship seems more like a real space filled with real people facing a journey into the unknown than any other Trek series. There are also nice little bits of continuity sprinkled in that tie even the more self-contained stories together. While there are problems with characterization (I'll get back to that point later) the crew is much less bland and 2-dimensional than Voyager. It also has the best production values of any Trek series and almost always looks a cut above the rest of the Berman era. However, ENT labored under the weight of its own poor construction, and developed problems early on that it would never completely shake.

First, no one could decide what the show was actually about, as far as any sort of overarching narrative. It was originally conceived of course as a prequel and a Federation origin story, but then became a kind of back door reboot for the franchise. It rarely directly contradicted canon, but it went off and made entirely new story elements instead of expanding upon the Trek universe as it already existed. In seasons 1 and 2 we wound up mostly with a myriad of entirely new alien/planet/anomaly of the week plots (which were stale and perfunctory imitations of TNG) and the poorly planned and thought out Temporal Cold War arc. There were a few weak callbacks to the prequel notion, but they were disjointed and poorly handled, like the Vulcans showing up just to be insufferable jerks once in a while.

The third season just dropped the pretense of being a prequel all together with the Xindi arc. While the story was interesting and mostly well handled, it amounted to "24 in Space"(several of ENT’s writers worked on 24) and it was an ill-fit for the structure of the series and the characters. The Xindi were never very threatening or convincing as enemies and the dark turn in the series was too sudden and ham-handed to be taken seriously. Though the season was entertaining simply for the way it ran the ship and crew through the wringer. Testing them on a long and dangerous mission in hostile space and bringing a sense of realism and continuity to the show; at times it felt like watching Voyager if it had stuck to its premise.

Season 4 is where the show starts to get its act together....well...after the space Nazi episode at least. But it still had its low points. One problem was that the new show runner, Manny Coto, brought in writers who were long time fans, and sometimes it felt like the inmates were running the asylum. They spent 5 episodes on a convoluted fan-fictiony explanation for the Klingon makeup change, and "oh look there are scenery chewing augments and Dr. Noonien Soong's look alike ancestor!”. They also spent 2 episodes in the Mirror Universe, which was simplistic fun but also slightly derivative and oriented towards fan service. The real standout is the Vulcan arc, which I have to say stands among the best stories Star Trek has ever produced. Season four however was not a complete redemption of the series and I don’t buy into the common refrain that a fifth season would have been some sort of unparalleled Trek masterpiece. Aside from the fact that TV shows are reasonably expected to sort out their growing pains in one season not three, and that ENT would have been cancelled long before if the Star Trek name wasn’t behind it; season 4 showed only a few glimpses of the series’ full potential.

The second major problem lies with the characters. The writers wanted to make the point that Humanity was taking its first steps into deep space and still had much to learn. This was a good idea in principle, since it would help to set the series apart from its predecessors and open up the potential for better drama. However they used ham-fisted methods to accomplish this; making the humans petty and stupid. In the first two seasons, Archer and Tucker often revel in their own sort of childish ignorance and masculine impulsiveness, while gleefully rubbing T’Pol’s face in it, who is often the sole voice of reason.

Instead of the interplay between logic, intuition and morality with Spock, Kirk and McCoy in TOS, we get T’Pol as an overbearing mother figure dealing with her rebellious sons. Archer’s character is especially dragged through the mud in awful episodes like “A Night in Sickbay”, and it seems like he’d be pretty much ok with his entire crew dying horribly as long as his dog was safe and he didn’t have to ask any Vulcans for help. Tucker mostly just comes off as a bumbling redneck caricature; of course according to “These are the Voyages” he never went to college and somehow taught himself warp theory by working on boat engines in his native Florida…Yes, you heard that right. I guess folksy wisdom triumphs even over the intricacies of manipulating spacetime.

This dynamic begins to change in season three, and while Archer and Tucker both gain competence, they take a sudden and unconvincing turn towards becoming revenge obsessed “space Jack Bauers”. It’s only in season four that they finally become people you could reasonably imagine leading an interstellar mission and not blowing up the ship in the first week, because they tried to use warp coolant discharge to heat a moonshine still. But Scott Bakula never seemed comfortable in the role, and Archer still remained the weakest and least interesting out of all the Trek captains.

The other characters are all pretty much one note. Reed likes weapons, Hoshi is afraid of everything and Mayweather (when he manages to get a line) likes to remind everyone that he was raised on a cargo ship. They are mostly forgettable. Phlox though is fairly interesting at times and John Billingsley usually manages to walk the line between annoying and endearingly eccentric, while usually avoiding the “bleeding heart doctor” clich├ęs.

Finally, there is a sort of childish male-centric sexuality that runs through much of the series. The very first episode gives us a gratuitous decontamination scene where Trip and T’Pol rub oil all over each other; while Reed and Mayweather giggle like 12 year old boys about three breasted women. T’Pol of course is given a catsuit uniform that is insulting to the actress, the character and fans of all genders and sexualities; then in a particularly awful episode she contracts an illness that makes her prowl the ship like a dog in heat. Star Trek never handled sex very well (go watch TNG’s “Sub Rosa”), but Enterprise took this to new heights of puerile stupidity.

So we’re left with a deeply flawed series, that couldn’t decide on a larger story direction nor completely break away from tired tropes of the franchise. But it is a series that I found to be ineffably watchable and at times very entertaining. It never reached anywhere near the heights of TNG or DS9, but it always managed to keep up a feeling of boldly going, even when it was to places we had obviously been before. Often the competence of its production overcame its questionable writing. For that reason I would rate it higher than Voyager, which always felt like it was retreading the same stale formula.  While I would never recommend Enterprise to someone unfamiliar with Star Trek, I think the series is worth a watch for any serious fan of the franchise. The current drought of Star Trek on the small screen is now entering it's tenth year, sometimes beggars can't be choosers, and you will find more than enough entertainment to keep you going through the ups and downs of its four seasons.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Battlestar Galactica: Its Successes, Failures And Lessons For The Future Of Sci-fi On The Small Screen (Part One)

Ronald D. Moore's dark and complex re-imagining of a cult 1970's TV show recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. I take a look at back in two parts at both its successes and failures, and what it lessons it has for the future of the science fiction genre on the small screen. (Part Two will be posted in the next few days) 

Though it had relatively modest (but never in danger of being fatal) ratings, Battlestar Galatica was an amazing critical hit without precedent in the oft neglected space opera sci-fi genre; once called the "Best Show on Television" by TV Guide. It also developed a strong and still devoted fan base. On its recent ten year anniversary many entertainment news outlets scrambled to eulogize the show in glittering terms, while holding it up as example to all sci-fi and genre television. BSG had undeniably high production values, a unique and gritty aesthetic, expertly portrayed characters and a willingness to use sci-fi to tackle issues of morality, religion and politics. But the show had definite structural problems beyond its controversial ending, which grew during its run and increasingly weighed down and nearly crippled its main narrative. BSG was in many ways science fiction's most spectacular success on television and its most spectacular failure. There is much to be learned from what it got right and where and how it went off the rails.

Science Fiction Television "Re-imagined"

Battlestar Galactica premiered in 2004, a time when television sci-fi, especially space opera, was entering a period of terminal decline. The last decade and a half had seen an unexpected revival and mass proliferation of the genre. Star Trek had returned to the small screen in 1987 with The Next Generation, a risky venture with a new crew of largely unknown actors. It was a curious sort of show, philosophical, dry, often pedantic but inexplicably addictive. It was a smash hit that few expected including Paramount executives who didn't even bother trying to find the backing of a major network, instead they sold the series in first run syndication. TNG's runaway success, bringing in as many as 14 million viewers per episode, led to four feature films and three television spin-offs. However, Paramount in a drive to keep a constant Star Trek presence on its fledgling new TV network UPN, began to overexpose the franchise and exhaust it creatively. After the mostly excellent Deep Space Nine, came two lackluster iterations, Voyager and Enterprise, which along with the decline of the TNG films, put Star Trek in an early grave. Enterprise limped along under the constant threat of cancellation until it was put out of its misery in 2005.

The other titan of TV sci-fi, which was also partially made possible by the success of TNG, the Stargate Franchise, was facing the same problems of overexposure and a decline in quality. SG1, once highly entertaining in its own brisk and lighthearted style, had gone on too long, exhausting its premise, main story line and even its principle star and producer Richard Dean Anderson, who left the show in its eighth season. In 2004 it spawned its own lackluster and much less successful spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis.

Sci-fi seemed like it was spent; a cash cow that had been milked dry and was no longer capable of innovation or grappling with weighty issues as it had at its height in the 90's. What was left was little more than a shell of some "gee wiz!" technology, plodding procedural drama and generic action. When BSG first launched very few people expected much of it. The name was associated with a 70's TV show filled to the brim with cheese (it featured an interminably precocious child and his robot dog as main characters), kept alive by a cult following praying for the success of a long shot revival campaign led by series star Richard Hatch. These fans were not happy with Moore's idea of "reimagining" BSG, which amounted to a hard reboot, and the general public was losing interest in sci-fi brands with much stronger pedigrees and wider name recognition.

But, Moore recognized the potential at the core of BSG's premise, before it devolved into a poor copy of Star Trek style planet of the week plots. A group of advanced human colonies in deep space are reduced to a few thousand survivors in a genocidal attack by a race of machines. They are forced to flee for their lives in a rag-tag refugee fleet, protected by the Galactica their last remaining warship, in the vain hope of reaching a now nearly mythical planet called Earth. Here was humanity in a pressure cooker, where the rules and structure of its society were totally upended. It was a chance to use sci-fi as a lens through which to examine the best and worst of the human condition. Moore had worked on three iterations of Star Trek and two of its feature films, but he had long chaffed under the restrictions of its often too rose tinted portrayal of the future and the burdens of its many well worn tropes. This was his chance to break out and bring realism, serious drama and philosophical complexity back to sci-fi. It was also fertile ground for the sort of long form serialized storytelling that was just beginning to permeate television in mid 2000's, in the wake of groundbreaking premium cable shows such as the Sopranos and the The Wire.

"It's the character's, stupid!"

The production team followed Moore's famous declaration closely. BSG, right out of the gate was a tightly constructed human drama constantly asking in words of Commander Adama "Why are we as a people worth saving?" A talented cast took us through the complexities of faith, politics and personal struggle at the end of world. There were no rubber faced aliens or spacial anomalies defeated with technobabble. Just 50,000 people crammed onto ships being relentlessly chased by the murderous race of machines they had created. The show had high production values and a gritty realism in all things. The Galactica gets increasingly battered throughout the series's run and uncomfortably overcrowded as ships in the fleet are destroyed and their occupants evacuated. Fighters are cannibalized for parts on a greasy hanger deck. People go hungry, thirsty and endure all sorts of privations (though there always seems to be more than enough boos to go around). Our heroes question the futility of the fight for survival and whether their own lives are even worth continuing; they also commit their share of questionable and even downright deplorable acts. The human and Cylon antagonists are painted in interesting shades of gray, as some work both for and against humanity at different times.

The narrative of the show is often anchored by Dr. Giaus Baltar who provides an outsider's prospective. A brilliant scientist, but weak, frivolous and self obsessed, he is manipulated into giving away access to the colonies' defense network by the humanoid Cylon and ultimate femme fatale know as "Six".  He survives the fall of the colonies and continues to be manipulated by a vision of Six which only he can see, but nonetheless provides him with information outside of his own frame of reference. She constantly encourages his own selfishness and petty egotism, moving him towards an ever greater position of power and influence within the fleet. But Baltar is rarely intentionally evil, James Callis plays the part with remarkable humor and pathos, and one can imagine that without the influence of Six, he could have been an asset to the fleet instead of nearly leading to its destruction.

Another staple of the series is the evolving relationship between Commander Adama, who is a grizzled veteran and the highest ranking surviving military officer, and President Roslin, who was the secretary of education before the attack and inherited the presidency because she was the last surviving cabinet member.  Their relationship evolves from mutual mistrust and conflict, to a grudging respect, friendship and eventually romance. Adama is also initially at odds with his estranged son and fighter pilot Lee, and their relationship goes through several upheavals.

The spotlight was always on its characters and their evolving relationships amidst danger, struggle and calamity. While this was BSG's main strength, the tunnel vision focus on inter-personal drama could also at times be a debilitating weakness.

To be Continued in Part Two... 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

EA's Battlefront Is Starting To Look Like A Large Step Backward From Its Predecessor

The new Battlefront from EA and DICE is a game that I desperately want to be amazing. Video games were always at the core of the Star Wars experience for me. LucasArts for most of its history, was unwilling to simply rest on the selling power of a popular name, and published innovative games of remarkable technical and narrative complexity. KOTOR I and II are considered among, if not the best, RPG's ever made; the X-Wing and Jedi Knight franchises similarly sit at the apex of the flight sim and shooter genres.

Battlefront 2 was the quintessential Star Wars game of its day when it launched in 2005, and a breath of fresh air in a Star Wars gaming franchise that had begun declining in quality and churning out lazy prequel trilogy tie-ins. It gave us the ability to recreate the massive and chaotic battles seen in the movies, both on land and in space. It pushed the boundaries of contemporary hardware with graphics that are still impressive today, and allowed for 32 player matches on consoles and 64 on PC's, with AI controlled characters on both sides adding to the sense of scale. Battlefront 2 also launched with a huge amount of content; an entertaining single player campaign that filled in an important part of Star Wars lore, dozens of units and locations from both trilogies, an engaging "galactic conquest" mode that mixed in elements of turn based strategy and of course excellent multiplayer. It was a dense genre spanning experience that I poured countless hours into. When you took your assault transport and flew into the hangar of a massive enemy capital ship, fought your way on foot to the bridge with your friends and then sabotaged its major systems allowing your team to destroy it; you couldn't help but feel some of that old LucasArts magic.

Unfortunately Battlefront 2 proved to be the last of the truly great and innovative Star Wars games, as LucasArts succumbed to horrible mismanagement, the meddling of Lucas himself and finally the sale of the franchise to Disney. EA has now taken over Star Wars gaming on behalf of Disney, a move that was met with something ranging between very cautious optimism to unconstrained vitriol among fans. EA has a well earned reputation of acquiring popular franchises and then running them into the ground by reducing their sequels to little more than empty cash grabs. Command and Conquer, Dead Space, The Sims, SimCity and Dungeon Keeper all were stripped of content and the elements that made them unique. Many, including myself, had hoped instead that Disney would revitalize LucasArts.

However, EA isn't incapable of publishing good games, the Mass Effect series was all around excellent (aside from the controversial original ending), Battlefield 3 was a very solid evolution of the series and Dragon Age: Inquisition was a sprawling, beautiful and engrossing RPG, even if it didn't have quite the same narrative punch of Origins. Even the troubled and nearly broken at launch Battlefield 4 has been fixed to the point that it is now one of the best online shooters on the market. So when it was announced that the new Battlefront was in development by the team at DICE, I was in the "very cautiously optimistic" camp. The prospect of a new Battlefront leveraging the Frostbite 3 engine and modern hardware to render massive and dynamic battles, was extremely exciting.

The recent big reveal at Star Wars Celebration was rather short on details and was mainly just a beautiful but obviously heavily edited trailer showing what was supposedly "game engine footage" of Rebels and Imperials fighting in the forests of Endor. But a growing list of worrying details have begun to emerge in various gaming publications from interviews with the developers.

1. There is no single player campaign, just a few missions depicting moments from the original trilogy that can be played solo or cooperatively.

2. There is no galactic conquest mode.

3. The max player count is capped at 40 across all platforms. When asked whether bots would be featured DICE responded with "no comment".

4. There are no space battles or fighting in orbit, and air units will be confined to the area above ground maps like in the Battlefield franchise.

5. The game will launch with only 4 playable planets, though how many maps will be set on each is unclear.

6. Only units and characters from the Original Trilogy will be featured.

7. The AT-AT walkers shown in the trailer and promotional stills will not be player controlled, and will instead follow a scripted path across the battlefield.

All of the items on this list are features or content that were included in Battlefront 2, making EA's Battlefront look like a rather large step backward from a predecessor that was launched a decade ago. Particularly concerning is the low player count. Some will say that Battlefield works just fine or is even better with 32 or 48 players instead of the full 64, but this is not Battlefield. Battlefront is not about creating a tight, tactical and realistic military shooter, it is about recreating the sprawling sci-fi chaos of Star Wars battles. I don't see how that can be accomplished with 20 vs. 20. You'll wind up in a "Battle of Hoth" with 6 or so players on each team in vehicles and a dozen on foot, with a few scripted AI walkers; which is rather absurd considering that Rogue Squadron II recreated the battle with a much larger scale on the Gamecube. Some users on Reddit have humorously taken to calling it "Star Wars: Skirmishfront". If anything the minimal expectation was a max of 64 players, with many rightfully expecting Planetside 2 scale battles with possibly hundreds of players.

The lack of space battles is similarly baffling to me, since they were widely considered to be a highlight of Battlefront 2 and an essential part of the Star Wars universe. There was a Battlefront 3 rather far along in development for 7th gen consoles and PC during the mid to late 2000's, before it was foolishly cancelled by LucasArts. The developers at Free Radical had created the technology for battles which seamlessly transitioned from space to planetary surfaces as they progressed. So expecting some form of space battles from DICE doesn't seem to be particularly unreasonable.

Overall this is pointing to a sequel that has been stripped of content and features compared to Battlefront 2, and is capable only of simulating a pale imitation of Star Wars warfare.  It is looking more and more like the original Battlefront, just with prettier graphics. EA and DICE have been typically dismissive of the growing fan concerns.

Handwaving past the lack of controllable AT-AT's... 

"That's 100% a game design decision. Nothing else. I won't go into details - I didn't make the decision, but just remember that full freedom etc. doesn't always equal fun."

And the low player count...

"40 players was actually the optimum number. Instead of putting 64 in there and just saying that for a number, and having it be too crowded and being a lesser experience, we’ve made it the most optimum number it can be.”

While we don't know enough yet for me to say unequivocally that Battlefront will be a bad game, and the final verdict will somewhat depend on whether or not bots will fill out the scope of the multiplayer battles; the portents aren't particularly good. There is a foul stench in the air of EA simply depending on the Star Wars name to generate hype and pre-orders, while selling content cut from the game back to us in pieces via paid DLC. I'm not one to mindlessly jump on the EA hate train, or break out the torches and pitchforks over minor quibbles like FOV sliders; but this list of missing content represents major features which were integral parts of the previous game. They are also reasonable expectations from a major AAA release these days. We should by now expect more out of a game like Battlefront. At the very least we should not get caught up in the hype until we see the full release, and for the love of Gaben take the advice of Forbes magazine and do not pre-order.

Update: Wow, I never expected this post to generate so much response, 300,000 views so far and the front page of r/gaming. This is just a small forum for me to write occasionally for my own enjoyment. I want to reiterate that I don't blindly hate EA (I've enjoyed many of their games including the entire Battlefield franchise) nor do I think that Battlefront will definitely be a terrible disappointment at launch, it is my honest wish that it is not. I was simply hoping for a true evolution for the series going forward that built on the previous games in the scope and depth of its gameplay, not just in shinny new graphics. I think we need to demand more from EA as gamers and Star Wars fans, and hold them accountable for these missing features. 



About Me

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I am a 20-something sci-fi fan and aspiring writer working towards a graduate degree in political science. Feel free to contact me via email.