Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

download-1I watched the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in 1993, and I hated it. I was a teenager, and this show bored me to tears (it’s called Trek, but they don’t actually go anywhere!). I did the natural thing: I forgot it existed for more than two decades.

I checked out some episodes on Netflix recently, and I was quite amazed: Deep Space Nine is awesome!

If Rogue One is Star Wars for grown ups, Deep Space Nine is Star Trek for adults. Even the opening credits (whose slowness baffled me as a kid), illustrate this contrast. Where the first two Star Trek series had zippy, bombastic anthems playing, DS9 has a somber, stately processional.

And I never knew that DS9 was a tense political thriller! World building is a big thing in the realm of fantasy writing these days, but unlike the rest of the franchise up to that point, DS9 isn’t an obvious analogy for the political environment of our time, but has completely invented its own wholly complete and complex political milieu from scratch.

And it’s unabashedly a military thriller! This is a story of the world at war. (Gene Roddenberry always wanted Star Trek to be about a hippie Utopia without real violence; hence the emphasis on families on board the Enterprise in season 1 of TNG, and hence the detachable saucer to whisk them off to safety in time of need–both awful plot devices that quietly disappeared as that show became much better).

But DS9 is absolutely saturated in military conflict. It’s everywhere, all the time. And, again, it’s a rich, mature world of serious political intrigue. This will definitely be my next Netflix binge show. For anyone else who might have written this off back in the 90s, do yourself a favor and give Deep Space Nine another chance.

Let Us Now Praise Father Jack

In all of the commentary about the various political interpretations of ABC’s reimagining of the classic sci-fi allegory V, I’ve yet to read any appreciation for the best of its fully realized and original characters: Father Jack Landry.

We’ve all been accustomed for years to Christians being derided in the media, but Father Jack is a huge step away from all of that: a sincere, humane man of faith whose spiritually sensitive nature is undeniable.  He’s not a hypocrite, he’s not a bigot, and he’s (gasp!) not a pedophile.  Mainstream network television has now given us an honest-to-goodness hero priest. 

Father Jack has a background in the military and is comfortable fighting when he needs to (the last episode had him practicing on a punching bag, showing it who’s boss with experienced skill), but instead of abusing this aspect of the character to make him more palatable to the usual pieties (i.e., “Sure, he’s a priest, but look!  He’s also a kung-fu psycho who wears shades, chain smokes, and curses like a sailor!  He probably got dishonorably discharged after stopping some rednecks from killing peaceful natives”–all these clichés are blessedly avoided), they blend to make him even more non-traditional: now he’s a priest and a soldier–the two things Hollywood hates the most!

Though physically powerful, handsome, and comfortable everywhere, Father Jack is quiet to the point of being reserved.  He reacts with patience, only getting worked up when innocent people are in danger.  This week’s episode saw him in a furious storm of self doubt, unable to bear the idea that his revolutionary tactics (call it grass roots activism, campaigning for social justice, revolting against a corrupt establishment, or what have you) might have killed any bystanders.  His pacifism is no rote show: it comes across as a genuine commitment to the value of human life above all other priorities (another major shift in tone for normal TV!). 

We’ve only seen him with his parishioners a few times, but they’re clearly always on his mind, and when he does meet with people, he actually discusses God and faith, not just bland platitudes.  He’s  a real priest!  (Can you sense my shocked excitement?)  This is a great character.

Checking my email just now, I saw a news story saying that V is one of the shows that may be on the chopping block for the Fall.  I hope not: it’s consistently one of the most suspenseful, clever, and relevant shows on television, and has a surprisingly decent hero to boot in Father Jack, the best clergy character I can remember since Father Mulcahy in the glory days of M*A*S*H.

Happy Golden Anniversary, Twilight Zone!

34375698I’ve been looking forward to today for months—it was 50 years ago, on Friday, October 2, 1959, that the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired.  

It’s unbelievable how good these were, and still are.  They are models of perfect pacing, creating suspense, framing and lighting shots, developing a theme, and dialogue that moves a stimulating story forward but never condescends.  There are no short cuts or cheap shots in The Twilight Zone, just flawless exposition and social commentary.  Rod Serling was a genius—besides the bulk of the great TZ episodes, he also wrote the original Planet of the Apes screenplay, including the best shock ending ever.

Who doesn’t like the monster of the wing of the plane, or Shatner getting addicted to fortune telling, or the nearly endless classic twist endings: the “deformed” girl in a conformist world,  the broken glasses, or the alien cookbook!

I use a few episodes in my classes each October, actually, to help teach literary concepts, like identifying themes and commentary.  

Should you invest some time on your date night to watching several classic episodes free online?  Yes.  Yes, you should.

Television Review: The Mentalist

The MentalistI recently read a movie review that pronounced the death of PG-13 comedies starring unusual characters and the rise of the raunchy, R-rated adult comedy. That may be true in theaters, but on the TV screens of America’s homes, the unusual character is stronger than ever.

Think House, think Monk, think Grissom on CSI, or any of a ton of other unique personality-driven shows. Last season, I was impressed by the savant-like quality of the innocently antisocial Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, but now the crown for best new character goes back to a drama.

Patrick Jane is a great character.  Though the advertising for The Mentalist sells him as a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, his powers of observation take a back seat to the sheer audacity of his harmless brashness.  Simon Baker as Jane is instantly likable, but in the way a politician or car salesman is: you know you’re being manipulated by a pro, but they’re just so good at it you don’t care. 

As the season has gone on, however, Jane’s back story has added a compelling depth to the character.  It’s not just Jane’s cheesy megawatt smirk that endears us to him, it’s his apparent struggle to keep up his life in the wake of the tragic murder of his family, and then it’s moments of pure surprise that end up fitting into that frame perfectly that keep us fascinated by this new man in our head. 

In one episode, Jane gives voice to what we had just been led to wonder about him when he looks at his superior and says, bluntly but totally without malice, that when he finds his family’s killer he’s going to do to him what the killer did to them.  It would have been chilling had it not sounded so reasonable, put so easily out in the light like that.  Jane makes revenge seem not only reasonable, but nice.

However, that same episode revealed a possible weakness of the show.  The camera likes to do our work for us.  When Jane is looking around for details inside the trailer of a mentally challenged man who might be involved in a murder, we zoom in on a copy of Moby Dick hidden on a closet shelf.  Hmmm.  That’s not right, we think.  What’s a mentally retarded man doing with Moby Dick?  Of course, the suspect is faking it, but we already knew that–isn’t that the only logical explanation for the book?

Also in that December episode, another suspect gets locked in a barn and appears to be threatened by a shadowy figure who might be a murder victim who survived.  The figure’s approach even closes an act and leads to a commercial break.  Naturally, we know that the figure is actually Jane in disguise, tricking the suspect into a confession, if only because it doesn’t make narrative sense to have such a long, key scene late in an episode leave out the main character. 

Hopefully such stumbles won’t become par for the course in what is becoming such an intriguing story.  Last night’s episode made me want to know more about the “Red John” story arc, and it ended on a solidly Holmesian note: a brief, taunting phone call is made to Jane from an unknown location, which he immediately figures out is a hotel in Tijuana.  His clues–the noise in the background (indicating the thin walls of a hotel) and the villain’s access to a phone, among others, are undeniably clever.  (I’d add that the bad guy also ended his call with “Vaya con Dios,” and since he has no apparent Hispanic background himself, it makes sense to think that he was calling from a location where he was surrounded by a Spanish influence.  But that’s neither here nor there.)

Such quick bits of observational derring-do, and the even more present employment of little psychological tricks to get people to say and do what he wants, make Jane a detective to keep our eyes on, and a character to keep our minds sharp. 

And maybe this will be just the thing we need to bring vests back in style.