Saturday, 29 November 2014

Interstellar: A Bullet Point Review

I’ve finally had a chance to watch Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I say finally because I had plans to go see it earlier but due to negligence and poor planning on my part, I completely missed out on it. I’m not an expert on Nolan and his films. Heck, I haven’t even seen all his films, but I’ve been blown away by those I have seen so consistently that I pay attention and make sure to watch all of his new projects. Interstellar is his first movie to come out since I’ve started blogging and I’m happy to have a place online where I can dump my thoughts about the film. SPOILERS FOR THE WHOLE MOVIE after the image below.

-The movie is long and it’s very bleak. Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) described the movie rather well when describing the planet on which he stayed for several years in complete isolation from the rest of humanity: “It’s stark but undeniably beautiful.” (Or words to that effect).

-Nolan cuts down on some of the movie’s darker tone by inserting testimonials of senior-aged survivors of the events of the movie. You know that someone, at some point in time, succeeds in saving the human species. At that point in the movie it’s unclear how or if they’re still on Earth but having those snippets of the movie’s outcome helps the viewer better appreciate the movie they’re just starting to watch because you know it will end well for humanity, if not for the main characters specifically.

-I’m not sure how accurate the science is. I know that it’s based on the work of real-world theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and that he played an advisory role in the film’s production. I can’t say much more beyond that because I don’t understand it in great detail but what I needed to understand is clearly discussed and presented in the movie. I also get the sense that there is more there waiting for me to learn and understand if I feel like being more attentive and rewatching the movie a few times. Certainly some of the science is inaccurate because it serves the story too perfectly. It’s fiction, after all, not an academic paper or a non-fiction novel about black holes.

-Indeed, some of this is pure speculation as part of the movie’s climax takes place inside the black hole (also called a singularity) where a three dimensional space is created inside the fifth dimensional space of the black hole in order to allow Cooper’s three dimensional brain from understanding how gravity can bend time back onto itself and enable him to communicate with himself and his daughter in the past. You’d have to spend many hundreds of hours to convince that you could find this in the heart of a black hole.

-What I’ve just described in the previous paragraph is actually one of the weaker points of the movie. There is a definitive sense that the narrative is building from the first minute of the movie but it doesn’t amount to anything entirely satisfying. Time loops on itself, basically, is the big reveal but there is no time travel movie paradox as where used to seeing them. I can’t make sense of it all because it appears as though Cooper had to physically be in two different places at the same time for a few key scenes of the movie. I tried thinking about the movie and labelling the characters as “old Cooper” and “future Cooper” but it still doesn’t seem to work. It’s very likely I simply don’t understand it but it’s also likely that it doesn’t make sense, even from a narrative point of view. That, ultimately, is why it’s disappointing.

-It could have been so much worse though. The first half of the movie had me fearing the worst: it’s all because of aliens! In the end we get a much messier reveal but the messy ending is actually kind of a refreshing for a movie by Nolan. He’s known for creating movies that act as a story and as a puzzle. Unsurprisingly, his high technical skills and his focus on narrative structure have garnered him a reputation for making cold and emotionless movies. This movie is, from those that I’ve seen so far, his most emotional movie and there is a nice irony to the idea that this movie doesn’t work very well as a puzzle because there is no definitive answer. I’m under the impression that there is room for interpretation, especially consider what the movie has to say about love and how it can govern our actions and lead to negative results even when we’re trying to do something positive.

-One thing that bothers me is that the movie mentions that stable wormholes cannot occur in nature. Why make mention of it and suggest it must have been created if no answer was to be given as to who created it? Surely it wasn’t Cooper.

-The emotional storyline is one of the movie’s strongest attributes but it’s resolved so early on in the movie despite remaining in focus for the duration of the movie.

-Cooper makes the decision to leave his children behind in order to save mankind. Murphy, his daughter, also chooses to let him leave while they’re still on bad terms. It’s her decision because he tries to make up while she refuses to listen to him or concede that he’s actually making a very difficult decision for all the right reasons. Later in life she admits to herself and to him that she was prepared to live with the consequences of letting him leave while they were still on bad terms. The consequences of that action are that she wasn’t able to make peace with her feelings of abandonment and she’s dedicated her life to understand the mission her father undertook. A mission she comes to share with him and eventually takes over due to the severity of the time distortions caused by the black hole and Cooper’s proximity to them for an extended period of time. Cooper chose to sacrifice his daughter and she chose to sacrifice her father by abandoning him and working on her own work which eventually lead to the survival of the human species.

-Their reunion at the end of the movie which takes place after a few years for him and a lifetime for her is so incredibly brief. They delight in the success of their mission only to realize that they have nothing to share anymore. She’s lived her life without him. As for Cooper, the daughter he knew has been gone for several years as Murphy is unrecognizable, physically, mentally and emotionally. She’s a different person. She dismisses him (kindly) in order to spend her last moments with her family and he moves on to reconnect with the one person he knows and understands, Amelia Brand. He’s a man out of time. The world he’s returned to isn’t the same world he worked so hard to save. He’s much closer to TARS, a robot, than any other human alive except for Brand. Everybody thinks they understand the sacrifice they made while saving humanity but nobody knows the details of the suffering they went through.

-The robot designs remind me of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, there are many similarities to be found between both movies and I’m certain that it’s intentional. Interstellar is a 2001 for modern audiences and it manages to top it off by adding heart to the story and minimizing the self-indulgence of the movie’s mend-bending climax.

-One of the great things about this movie is the musical score. It’s by one Hans Zimmer, one of Nolan’s frequent collaborators, and it’s so different from what we’re using to seeing in Nolan’s previous movies. The now infamous use of bass to make various “BRAAAAAAMS” appear in every important seen are replaced, for the most part, by wonderfully classic and sometime even elegiac pieces of music. He also uses a lot of short, quick sounds – the tick tick tick tick of watches that heighten the emotional moments and the tense scenes in the movie. The music really tied the whole thing together. It served the plot and the story while also elevating the entire movie. I doubt that Interstellar would have achieved as much emotion in it without Zimmer’s involvement. It’s a captivating score and it moved me on more than one occasion.
-The movie also looks damn good. It’s simply superb to look at. The minimal use (by today’s standard) of computer generated effects is appreciated because everything looks so realistic. It didn’t surprise me to learn that a lot of the scenes with the Ranger, the Lander and the Endurance were done with miniatures.  They certainly didn’t look like it when flying in the vastness of space, looking tiny in comparison to the black hole. There is also a prevalent sense of danger which I think the visuals played a big part in conveying on the screen. The movie’s designs are also wonderful. I really like the look of the spatial anomalies, the space shuttle, the Endurance, the rectangular robots. Everything looks futuristic but also practical and believable. The look of the movie didn’t stress disbelief. Instead, it helped to lure you even deeper into the movie’s story.

-The movie succeeds for me because it doesn’t shy away from using big ideas to tell two stories. The first being very personal; a small scale story told on a huge storytelling canvas. The second is a much larger story, one set against the backdrop of an environmental disaster and dealing with the survival of a species (I’m please the movie didn’t try to make it about the planet, it’ll be quite fine without us causing havoc on it). It also uses big scientific ideas to ask large, even intimidating, questions to the viewer. Questions about what it means to be human, what we’re willing to risk and for whom we’re willing to risk it for. One of the ideas I really liked was how mankind tends to be skilled at making good decisions when thinking about the future of a few individuals that are close to you (family, mostly) but that we suck at making decisions that concern the entire species. It rings true when viewed against the backdrop of today’s reality. Anyone who reads the news regularly sees this failure in judgement in action on a weekly basis. It’s easier to digest or at least be receptive of these questions because the overall tone of the movie is hopeful but it doesn’t shy away from showing us an example of the kind of hardships we might have to face when choosing to do the right thing in difficult situations.

-Overall, the movie gets really messy and unravels quite a bit in the final forty minutes but it’s a beautiful mess to watch. It’s an exquisite mess that gives the viewer quite a few answer and explanations while also posing a ton of new questions. Best of all though, the movie has consequences. It’s not happily ever after but it also avoids ending on a depressive note or with the end of mankind. It’s actually a hopeful ending because our own humanity, love, dedication and hard work is what saved us and that’s also what will help us survive and rebuild in the future. You get the sense that the worst has passed but it’s also suggested that there is still quite a bit of work to be done. Strangely enough the task of rebuilding isn’t exclusively passed on to the next generation. Cooper and Brand are on Edmund’s planet where they will likely incubate the fertilized embryos and establish a colony on a planet’s surface instead of in space. Murphy saved humanity from the brink of extinction with the help of her father’s communication through the singularity of the dark hole but it’s Cooper and Brand that are have been and are still working on creating a sustainable future for humanity on a new planet.

-It’s clear to me that I haven’t fully digested this movie yet and that’s a great thing. I know it won’t all make sense. That’s also clear to me but there are still a great many things left for me to decipher and understand. It’s a great story which, very surprisingly, has a father-daughter relationship at the heart of it. That’s the biggest surprise of this movie. That and the fact that Interstellar asks big questions and doesn’t stoop to giving simple answers or dumbing down the science for the sake of marketability. Even when it doesn’t make sense this movie is never dumb. It remains intelligent while keeping a respectable level of accessibility. It extends its hand to the viewer, inviting it to think big thoughts and have big ideas instead of dumbing it all down without giving us a chance to rise to its level. Some people feel Nolan is pretentious in his filmmaking but until cinemas are filled with movies that could be qualified as pretentious with nary a fun, brainless movie around, then I’ll consider an intelligent movie to be a negative thing. For now, I’ll simply be thankful that a director like Nolan has the audacity to make such sprawling and original movies as this one. 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Imzadi review

One of the greatest disappointments of The Next Generation is that poor use of Troi and Riker’s romantic past. It was made quite clear in the very first episode that they had a romantic relationship in the past and while that wasn’t something that needed to be immediately defined in the show, it could have led to some very interesting stories. Instead, it’s mostly ignored for the duration of the series only to be picked up again in the movies and neatly wrapped up, without really developing the characters or their relationship. I was pleased to discover that there exists a novel that expands on this relationship, mostly but focusing on Riker and Troi’s past. I was doubly pleased that it’s written by Peter David, one of my favourite Star Trek writers.

The great thing about Star Trek and many other heavily detailed and expansive fictional universes or settings is that overtime the fictional world develops to such a degree that it can then be used to tell any kind of story at all. Similarly to how literary fiction has dabbled in other genres to tell specific stories, franchises have and continue to do the same. Two Star Wars books come to mind as good examples of what I’m trying to say: Death Troopers (horror), Kenobi (western). For most of Star Trek’s best episodes and stories (films, books, comics) the main idea is one about travel into the unknown and discovery of unusual cultures and the adventures that the characters have had are used in a way to shed light on our own behaviour. As such, Star Trek can and has been used effectively as a way to hold up a mirror on contemporary matters and provide a catalyst for reflection and thought on complicated issues. It’s often done in combination with action and adventure stories.

While the TV series have focused a lot of adventure the media tie-in novels have spends a great deal of time following up on Starfleet’s initial encounters with civilization or strange inhabitants of the universe. The novels are also particularly interesting for providing us with additional information on people and events taking place before and after a particular series or movie.

Which bring us to Imzadi. As I’ve come to expect from David, his novels effortlessly balance big ideas, strong characterization and humour. The results have always been good (at least on the novels he’s written solo). In that respect Imzadi is par for the course but it does have more problems with it than I initially expected. My expectations are the result of the commentary I’ve read online, claiming Imzadi as David’s best TNG novel. The rest of it was made up by my personal thoughts on the relationship between Riker and Troi. I simply expected something a little bit longer and more involved than what David writes.  

Imzadi begins with a rather dark introduction set in the future, about 40 years after the end of TNG. The sense of adventure and hopeful energy that is characteristic of many television episodes is gone. When Commodore Data spends as much time thinking about the past than he does thinking about the present and the future, it’s telling. He’s been characterized as incredibly curious and while he still shows some of that curiosity in the book’s first chapter, he’s also preoccupied with the past. You get to see his future self contrasting with his TNG-era self later in the novel when two time periods collide. It could be that his curiosity has shifted towards deeper understanding of existing knowledge as opposed to discovery but I think it suggests the overall feeling of the United Earth’s Federation at the time the story of Imzadi begins.

The first few chapters also introduce us to an older William Riker, now an Admiral. He no longer cares about his duty to Starfleet or his career. He feels as though he’s peaked (and he has) and as the commander of Starbase 86 he’s coasting until the end of his days. It takes an element of the past to rouse him into action and even that isn’t much of a rousing, initially. David introduces another character from TNG who eventually starts a fire in Riker who then takes it upon himself to bring his eternal love back to life by using the Guardian of Forever and changing the past.

David uses the novel to bring the reader to the very beginning of Riker and Troi’s relationship. He spends about half the novel developing their romance which has only been hinted at in the show. This is where David fails, in my opinion. There are several things about Riker and Troi’s relationship that I don’t like. For starters, they both seem to be competing with each other. I don’t get the sense that Troi likes Riker for who he is. Instead, she immediately tries to change him. As for Riker, he tries to pretend he doesn’t have the personality that Troi says he has (even though her analysis of him is spot on). They eventually come to love each other but only after Riker rescues Troi from and intergalactic art thieves who kidnapped her. The most frustrating part isn’t that Troi is the damsel in distress; it’s that everything feels forced. David’s humour also gets in the way of their romance and it doesn’t work nearly as well as I would have hoped. I can’t help feeling that Troi only likes Riker because she believes they’re imzadi which is a Betazed version of soulmates. She feels connected to Riker and he to her but because it happened during sex, it comes off as them simply having incredible sex in the middle of the jungle. It’s a type of romance, sure, but not what I was expecting.

Despite all of these problems, David continues to prove that he has a knack for writing the characters of TNG. He understands them and their mannerisms shine through on the page. Data (present and future versions), Picard, Riker (past, present and future versions) and Troi (past, present and future versions) are all spot on. I might not have liked the romance chapters but all the characters from the TV series stay true to how they’re portrayed on television. It’s likely because of his firm grasp of these characters that he created such believable versions of their younger and future selves. That leads right into the highlight of this book which is the excellent time travel adventure. David sets it up beautifully and it pays of expertly in the final few chapters.

I also really like how his use of the Guardian of Forever and the TOS episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”. I really like it when Star Trek novels elaborate on the implication of discoveries the Enterprise and her crew made in an episode. David does that here with the Guardian where we learn that a there is a crew living on the planet who job it is to observe and record the Guardian. They study it, record what it says and try to live with the negative psychological influence it has on them. While it might be fun and exciting (as well as dangerous, let’s admit) to make all these discoveries it can be significantly less exciting and equally dangerous to have to deal with those discoveries. Studying the Guardian is described as a thankless task. It’s difficult and there is seemingly little pay off. This somewhat bleak look at Starfleet is important and while not all the novels share this view of Star Trek I’m glad that there are some as it shows an important facet of the franchise and it serves to add quite a bit of depth to the series as there were a lot of TV episodes that lived in a vacuum. This sense of continuity, not in the sense of minute details studied by Trekkie trivia buffs, but in the sense that stories depicted in past episodes are either remembered or continue to progress one the Enterprise and its crew have flown away, is a highlight of the Star Trek novels.
I’d like to talk about more details but I fear that doing so would ruin the novel. I had a great time reading about the different time periods and following the narrative while it weaved between past, present and future. It’s an impressive feat that David combined so many elements that make Star Trek good, considering those elements rarely work so well together. As I said above, the weakest part of this book was the chapters focusing on Riker and Troi’s first few weeks together and it does affect the rest of the narrative. If you can’t believe in their love you can’t believe in Riker’s actions and the important of Troi to his life and (though it’s never shown from her point of view) Riker’s importance to Troi. Imzadi isn’t David’s best Star Trek novel but it is very enjoyable. The breadth and scope of the story is impressive even though he doesn’t quite pull it off as expertly as I would have hoped. There are still numerous reasons to read this book. If you’ve a fan of David’s writing, curious about Riker and Troi’s relationship, enjoy a time travel story, would like to see a TNG version (though reverse version) of “The City on the Edge of Forever”, you owe it to yourself to pick up this book. As long as you don’t expect too much from the book’s romance chapters you’re guaranteed to have a good time.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Trillium by Jeff Lemire review

I’ve been a fan of Canadian writer-artist Jeff Lemire since I first read his Essex County trilogy. After that I started to read the rest of his works that were published at the time and I’ve followed his career as he started to write superhero comics for DC Comics. While Essex County was his breakout work, his first comic was Lost Dogs. He came to greater renown working on a now completed ongoing series for Vertigo Comics called Sweet Tooth. In the past few years he’s been alternating his superhero work with more personal and less mainstream projects with other publishers. His work for DC has been mostly writing and occasionally illustrating superhero comics. He’s worked on Superboy, Animal Man, Justice League Dark, and Green Arrow. His non-superhero comics include a retelling of H. G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. Generally speaking, I get a very different kind of enjoyment out of his standalone projects that are both written and illustrated by Lemire. Essex County, The Nobody, and Underwater Welder are all excellent reads. It’s only natural that I got excited for his latest standalone project when it was announced that Lemire would be doing a science fiction love story for Vertigo.

The story is set in two time periods, the primary one being in the year 3797. There, a scientist named Nika Temsmith has been trying to unlock the secrets of trillium, an alien flower. Her goal is to find a potential cure against a sentient disease that has killed all of humanity save for a few thousand. Most of Nika’s research is done near an alien city that is shaped like an Incan pyramid. In 1921 a veteran of the First World War, William Pike, is suffering from PTSD. He’s part of an expedition to find the lost temple of the Incas, somewhere in Peru. Both of their lives become intertwined when Nika travels through time and space to find herself face to face with William outside the temple. The temple and the trillium flowers help them to communicate despite their differences in language and culture. As consequence, the fate of their lives is intertwined with humanity’s survival in the future.

Trillium had tons of potential and I admit I had high hopes but having just read all eight issues in the collected trade paperback edition I can’t help but be disappointed. There are numerous problems with the story that I can’t help but feel Lemire may have rushed this comic while trying to juggle many of his other projects. His art has always had an unpolished, sketchy quality to it but it’s always been characterized by his ability to effectively capture tone and convey strong emotions. By opting to write a science fiction story Lemire has, perhaps unintentionally, revealed one of his greatest weaknesses as an illustrator. His design work is inconsistent and not always convincing. The science fiction elements such as the space ships, the space suits and the laser guns are torn between futuristic designs and retro designs. The laser guns look like cartoon laser guns and the space suit helmets look like goldfish bowls. It’s inconsistent to the point of distraction.

Additionally, the aliens are underwhelming. They’re far too humanoid in appearance and while I could excuse that if this was a television series with a restricted budget but Lemire’s pen doesn’t have those same restraints. It’s unfortunate but his style isn’t detailed enough to support the kind of visuals required by the story he wrote. There are certain pages that include dozens of characters, dense jungles or larger than life settings. You get an idea of what Lemire was trying to accomplish but it falls short of his vision.  

Visually the comic gives you the sense that the science fictional elements don’t really matter. They are set dressing and have little consequence on the overall story. The sentient virus, the space colonies, time travel and the use of the Incan ruins as a time travel device are all good ideas but they do no work together cohesively.

The aliens were particularly problematic as they didn’t play any role beyond protecting the flowers and then given them to Nika for an undefined use. Lemire worked closely with letterer Carlos M. Mangual to develop an alphabet for the aliens and most of their dialogue is written in that form. It’s a nice detail but it’s completely unnecessary. I haven’t used it to translate too much dialogue but the bubbles I did translated didn’t have anything substantial to add to the narrative.

Another thing that is poorly used is the trillium flower. Why is it important? The first issue suggest it might be useful for developing a cure against the virus but it’s used as a product to expand the mind and help overcome language barriers between different characters. That would be fine if it played a role in the story aside from allowing for the main characters to connect, but it doesn’t. You could say that having the main characters connect is important to the story but I felt the romance story was very forced. It was very unemotional and we’re not given any reason for their being a relationship between the two aside from the shared memories caused by the ingestion of the trillium flower. They are both misplaced from their time period and because of that I could understand that they’re linked, but love? Even romance? I don’t see it. I certainly didn’t feel it.

The book isn’t all bad though. Lemire is a skilled storyteller and even when he creates something as flawed as Trillium it still has its positive aspects. The most enjoyable thing about Trillium is that Lemire is stepping out of his comfort zone. A lot of his work is either set in a small tone and deals with themes of isolation and identity. He’s also done a lot of superhero work that has used those same themes but he has also explored other interesting ideas with those comics. He’s yet to do a story set firmly in the science fiction genre (you could argue that superheroes fall in that category). He’s challenging himself creatively and some of those shines through successfully here but not enough to make this a worthwhile read for readers unfamiliar with Lemire’s body of work.

While the story and the world building are disappointing, the skill with which Lemire illustrated his comic is as impressive as ever. The use of flip flopping page layouts works to the story’s advantage. The overall sense is one of disorientation which helps the reader identify with Nika and William who are experiencing an even greater disorientation due to the time travel and other strange and unexplained science fictional phenomena. Lemire forces the reader to flip the book around and read sideways. One issue splits every single page in two with one story being told on the top half. The second story on the bottom half requires you to flip the entire book completely over for the duration of the issue.

Lemire also works with regular contributor José Villarrubia who handles the colouring. Villarrubia is one of my favourite colourists in the business because he’s able to change his colouring style to best match the artist he’s working with. That’s true of his work with Lemire and it really shows in Trillium. Villarrubia’s colouring looks like watercolours and it helps to highlight the strangeness of Lemire’s story as well as the unusual quality of Lemire’s linework. These two creators make an excellent team and it’s a joy to have a story that allows for Villarrubia to show off some different tricks.

My excitement may have led to my less than positive reaction to Trillium but that doesn’t change the fact that it was one of the biggest missteps since the beginning of his career in comics. That’s not to say that it’s all bad. I recognize and appreciate the fact that Lemire tried something different. He could easily have spent his time writing yet another superhero comics or an equally formulaic story and ended up with a more enjoyable comic. I’d rather read an interesting failure than a bland, yet successful, cookie-cutter comic book. I’m convinced that Lemire has learn a lot about his abilities to tell this kind of story, something that is truly outside of his comfort zone if you compare it to his previous work. He pushed beyond his usual story limitations and even though the end result wasn’t impressive, his artistic devotion to create something new and different was still satisfying to me as a fan of his work. I can only trust that it was equally satisfying to him as an artist and that he will continue to expand his horizons and develop his storytelling skills. Trillium will certainly not be the last comic of his that I read and I’m already anxiously awaiting the next one.  

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Where to Start With Star Trek, Part Two: The Movies

My first real foray into Star Trek was watching the movies. My dad used to watch The Next Generation when I was much younger but basically all I remembered from watching some of those episodes with him was the look of the bridge, Geordie’s VISOR and that Captain Picard was played by Sir Patrick Stewart. My entire life I’ve always known about Star Trek through cultural osmosis and the few episodes I watched with my dad but in truth the first bit of Star Trek I actually remember watching is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I would watch it about once a year during my teens and as much as I didn’t like the movie over all, I loved some parts of it. Mostly the parts about the crew interacting and how they all seemed a bit too old for the kind of adventure they were having. I wouldn’t see all the other movies until my 20s but once I did, I was more than hooked. For a time I was simply happy to watch and rewatch The Wrath of Khan and First Contact but eventually I wanted more and I watched the rest of the movies, several episodes of The Original Series and finally TNG.

While it might seem unlikely that I eventually became a big fan of the franchise considering my first foray into Star Trek was with the second worst movie, I think it served as a good introduction. The reason being that Star Trek is the kind of series that, at its best, stands proudly with some of the best science fiction stories in any medium, but, at it’s worse, is absolute drivel that isn’t even worth the virtual ink used to write about it. As such, The Final Frontier isn’t the best place to start out with the franchise as it gives us many of the lows and barely enough good moments to keep you interested in the crew of the Enterprise. It never reaches any highs but it’s apparent, even in such a bad movie, that Star Trek could serve as the vehicle to greater stories.

Out of the five TV series I believe there are two series that could act as good introduction points, TOS and TNG. They both have problems which I stated above but really, it’s often hard to find a better starting point than the two series that so greatly influenced the others that followed. As such, it’s hard to beat TOS or TNG. Certainly, any episode of Star Trek could and certainly has served as a starting point for someone but based on the episode and the person watching it, the results can vary. Certainly I would have preferred a number of episodes from later seasons of TNG instead of the sub-par work found in the first season but, at the end of the day, the first season had the same problems as many other television shows have in their first seasons. In short, the show is finding its footing. I would also be remiss to point out that that tie-in media such as Star Trek comics and novels could have served as introduction to some fans but I wouldn’t recommend starting there, mostly because they often act as sequels of sorts to the various television series. According to me, the best way to introduce new fans to the franchise is with the movies. You might immediately disagree with that because the movies don’t accurately reflect what Star Trek television is about. The movies offer something that the television episodes don’t do often: spectacle. The movies can hook you based solely on their imagery. They’re more likely to impress non-fans or new fans because they’re simpler than the TV series and they offer something more familiar to the potential viewers but, it’s still distinctly Star Trek and that should suffice to get them hooked.

The best Star Trek but is it new
viewer friendly?
Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Surprisingly Good Introduction:
Older versions of the crew from TOS make for a fascinatingly entertaining subject. I love the pathos and the history the characters (and the actors) bring to the screen. You don’t need to know much about Star Trek to be able to enjoy these movies. That’s even true of The Wrath of Khan which I first saw while still being unaware of the existence of “Space Seed”. You can easily pick up on the details you need to enjoy the movies in the movies themselves, even when they act as sequels to other elements introduced in TOS. They’re surprisingly accessible.

Some of the worst and some of the best Star Trek movies are contained in the six TOS films. I would say that the first movie, The Motion Picture, has a lot of slow moments thanks to the extended and far too long camera sweeps of various starships. It’s starship porn, basically, but there is a good message to the movie and it’s well acted but its glacial pace will likely turn away potential fans. What will likely be appealing to new viewers is that it feels very much like a beginning and that’s exactly what it does because it kicks off the movie version of Star Trek. Certainly the movie makes mentions of a previous history between the main characters but it doesn’t require any actual knowledge of that time. As such it works well as an introduction but the slow moments might put off viewers that want more action and less thinking. Really though, if you’re that put off by this movie you’re probably not cut out to be a Trekkie anyway.

A better movie to start with is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan but it’s not without its own problems. Newcomers to the franchise might wonder why you’re looking to introduce them to Star Trek with a move that is called Star Trek II. Why not start with the first one? The answer is simple. The Wrath of Khan is nearly unanimously considered the best Star Trek movie and rightfully so. It’s excellent. It can easily be discussed along some of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, regardless of whether or not a conversation includes films that are part of a franchise. This movie, more than any other in the franchise, employs gravitas like it’s nobody’s business. The fight between Kirk and Khan is grounded in the characters’ motivations and their personal beliefs. It’s superbly acted and the characters are given the chance to actually feel emotions on screen. While there is a lot of action it also takes time to establish strong character moments. There isn’t really anything about this movie that gives me reason to complain. I love it unabashedly. It also kicks off an excellent three part movie sequence within the movie franchise and it’s one of the high points of the franchise, in my opinion.

The argument could be made that because The Wrath of Khan is a sequel to the TOS episode titled “Space Seed” that it shouldn’t be used as someone’s first Star Trek viewing experience. I don’t think so at all. There is nothing wrong with starting with the best movie, even if it’s a sequel to an episode. I first watched this movie without the knowledge of “Space Seed” and the movie still works very well. I later took the time to watch “Space Seed” and while that’s a very good episode in its own right, it added depth to the events that take place during The Wrath of Khan. That doesn’t mean that the movie and the episode are dependent of each other. Even if you choose to continue your introduction to Star Trek with the third and fourth films, without taking the time to watch any other movies or episodes in between, an attentive viewer will be able to follow along without any trouble. The powerful story told in the second Star Trek movie is, I believe, one of the best places to start because any way you cut it, the movie grabs you and doesn’t let go. It’s enthralling, majestic and reflective in ways that we rarely get to see on the big screen, especially within a science fiction franchise. It also has a damned good novelization by the great Vonda N. McIntyre.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, though very good movies, aren’t new-Trekkie friendly. Not unless you’ve seen The Wrath of Khan, as I briefly mentioned above. These two movies really embrace their roman numerals of III and IV. They are parts of a larger narrative and because they’re not the first part of that larger story they work best when viewed in order, by which I mean after the previous installments. Don’t believe me? The Search for Spock begins by recapping (read: spoiling) the end of The Wrath of Khan. Right out of the gate this movie doesn’t let you ease into the universe of Star Trek and already you’re dealing with continuity. However, if you started with the first and/or second Star Trek movies, I’m confident that the third and fourth movies will help convince to explore even more movies or television episodes.

Please, don't make the same mistake I did.
Stay away from this movie.
I might be the only person in the world that has a bit of a soft spot in their heart for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. To be blunt, it’s a piece of shit. To be fair, this could still be turned into a good movie but I really don’t see the benefit in trying to do that when you could more easily come up with a better idea for a Star Trek story. While it’s not the absolute worst that Star Trek has to offer (it’s rather sad how true that statement is) it’s far from being an enjoyable film from start to finish. I personally find it difficult to completely dismiss it for reasons stated above but newcomers should absolutely avoid it. This is the kind of movie that could easily turn people away from a franchise and I wouldn’t be surprised to say it has. The few enjoyable moments to be found in this movie simply don’t do much to make it enjoyable in anyway. It shouldn’t just be avoided by people who are new to Star Trek but it should be intentionally skipped when watching the TOS movies. Do not take my introduction to this post as indication that this is a good movie. It’s not. I only rewatch it occasionally because of nostalgia or because I’m too dumb to follow my own advice.

The sixth and final TOS movie, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, is yet another good movie. It’s also yet another poor place to start your exploration of the franchise, mostly because of the heavy reliance of Klingons as a main story element. That’s not a bad thing for the movie or for Trekkies. I quite like this movie because it makes good use of Klingons (and Shakespeare) but being good isn’t enough to attract or impress new viewers. Not only would I not recommend starting with this movie without watching previous TOS movies, I would also not recommend watching it unless you’ve seen some of the Klingon-centric episodes of TNG. By the time The Undiscovered Country was released, TNG was in its fourth year on the air and some of the elements introduced or further developed in the TV series developed the franchise’s canonical information regarding Klingons beyond what was established in TOS (both the TV series and the movies). That matters because The Undiscovered Country is basically a political thriller with Klingons as main characters. It’s easy to become acquainted with the crew of the Enterprise but Klingons are more of an acquired taste. I find it hard to believe that people who do not like Klingon like this movie. I find it even harder to believe that people who haven’t seen at least a few Klingon-centric episodes of TOS or, preferably, TNG are able to like Klingons. Stay away from this movie when first discovering the greatness of Star Trek. If you’re starting with the other TOS movies make sure to circle back to this one once you’ve familiarized yourself with Klingons and their culture.

Star Trek: Generations to Star Trek: Nemesis – A Mix Bag, But Could Be Effective:
Star Trek: Generations isn’t a terrible movie but it’s not much better. In essence, Generations is fan service which often doesn’t amount to much aside from surface pleasures. The whole point of this movie is to have a passing of the torch between both captains of the Enterprise, Kirk and Picard. It acts as a movie that is unsuccessful and unnecessary at bridging the TOS movies and the TNG movies. In addition to the multiple problems that already plague this movie, the idea of having two series of the franchise come together in one film isn’t something that would appeal to new fans. Consider also that the whole idea of Star Trek is poorly communicated in this movie you have something that you really should keep away from until you’re more familiar with TOS and TNG. It’s hard enough for me to find things to enjoy about this movie that the idea of initiating a non-Trekkie to Generations sounds like a sure way of steering them clear of the franchise for the rest of their life.

Thankfully the second TNG movie, Star Trek: First Contact, is a much better place to start exploring the franchise. The reason why this is a good starting is very simple. It, like Wrath of Khan, is so good in and of itself it will undoubtedly act as an irresistible hook for potential fans. On most days I would consider First Contact to be the second best Star Trek movie. The score by Jerry Goldsmith and his son Joel Goldsmith is enough to make me want to watch the movie. Add to that a strong story, excellent execution and stellar performances by most of the cast and it’s easy to see why it could work so well for newcomers. The only thing really holding this one back, again much like The Wrath of Khan, is that the primary conflict is the result of episodes form the TNG TV series. Specifically, the two part episode “The Best of Both Worlds”.

That leads us to what I think is the best movie for attracting potential Star Trek fans. A couple weeks I wrote about Star Trek: Insurrection at length. In order to avoid repeating myself, I’d suggest you take a read when you’re done with this post. The simplest reason that I consider Insurrection to be the best Star Trek movie to begin with is that of all (so far) twelve instalments in the franchise, it’s the most representative of the entire franchise. It uses humour, character moments, an interesting science fiction idea and uses them all to develop a Star Trek adventure that also has time to linger on fascinating thematic elements. It also has its fair share of action sequences though it’s by no means the most action pact movie. A lot of people have criticized this movie but I personally like it. It’s essentially an extra-long episode with high production values which gives it more spectacle than most television episodes. To top it all off, there isn’t really any need for prior knowledge of TNG specifically or Star Trek as a whole. I might just be a better starting place that most of the TV series as well. It’s incredibly new viewer friend and I can’t recommend it highly enough for being unabashedly Star Trek in its story and its execution.

The Last TNG movie and the last movie in the originally movie series, Star Trek: Nemesis has few if any redeeming qualities. The above list can be boiled down to the idea that the good Star Trek movies will generally serve as good entry points for potential Trekkies and bad movies are best left unwatched or saved for later. The exception to that rule are Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home because of their story closely follows the events of The Wrath of Khan. Still, if someone was to watch them before watching any other Star Trek, I’m sure they’d be entertained and curious to learn more about the franchise. I can’t say the same thing about Nemesis and the rest of the bad Star Trek movies. Nemesis is infamous for putting an end to the movie series due to being a terrible movie. The main problem for new fans isn’t that this story depends on the preceding movies and seven seasons of TNG. More so, it’s that it doesn’t really do anything with that series’ history and it tries to create, out of thin air, a villain worthy of the Enterprise and its crew. There are many reasons why this movie garnered the smallest box office returns of any Star Trek movie and starting your exploration of the franchise here is equal to a warp core failure.

Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – Flashy Star Trek with Little Thought:
The best thing that can be said about the rebooted Star Trek movies is that they’ve brought the franchise back into the public’s consciousness after the end of the less than stellar Enterprise series. The problem is that Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness, more than any of the other movies, are poor examples of what Star Trek is really about. It lacks the inherent optimism of the franchise and the characters are exaggerated characters of the TOS crew. They’re not different but they’re warped to the extent of being unrecognizable as the same characters. They’re caricatures of the TOS incarnations of the characters. Action and unnecessary melodramatic additions dilute the powerful themes that the series often had. It focuses on flash over substance but I would be remiss to ignore that Star Trek (2009) helped to make the series exciting again.

There was one other good aspect about the movies and it’s that they established their continuity in an alternate universe, allowing the rest of the franchise to continue existing without any canonical conflict. While the idea of canon isn’t supremely important to me, it often is to many fans of any given franchise. Interestingly, this idea opened up the franchise to tell unique stories without being limited by roughly 45 years of Star Trek presence. They had to go fuck it all up by rehashing and ruining one of the best TOS movie by making Into Darkness. The lack of originality and the poor handling of the story were bad enough but the movie seems to go out of its way to insult the audience’s intelligence and destroy the main premise of the franchise: exploration on a starship. The movie does this by increasing the capabilities of transporters which allows some of the characters to teleport huge distances, including from one planet to another. Interestingly enough, it’s an idea that Roddenberry considered for TNG. I’m extremely pleased that it was eventually abandoned for the show but to have the idea resurface in the movie is unfortunate as it proved just how bad an idea it is. It should have stayed buried with only a hope of being found by Trekkie trivia junkies.

There you have it, my recommendations on the best entry points for new fans or aspiring Star Trek fans. Even though we live in a time where binge watching television is common practice I’ve suggested ways to speed up your viewing of some of the series in order to put you or your friends on a fast track to some of the best that the series has to offer. Truly though, if you’re interested in the series you can basically start anywhere and the franchise will eventually take shape in your head but I wanted to offer something that present the best possible way to fall in love with one of the most beloved franchise of them all.

Do you think thing I missed something? Chime in the comments if you know of a better introduction point to Star Trek that I didn’t mention above.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Where to Start With Star Trek, Part One: The Television Series

As a franchise that has endured for nearly 5 decades, Star Trek has changed and evolved throughout the years. Different writers, producers, showrunners and actors have brought their own version of the franchise to the big and small screens. While the show has generally remained the same at its core, exploration and understanding new civilizations through communication, some fans like their Star Trek in one way only. Perhaps as a big blockbuster movie? Maybe as speculative fiction that tries to establish some of the problems humanity might face in the 23rd or 24th Century? Many fans of TOS consider the franchise to be at its best when it embodies creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future with an added element of swashbuckling for good measure. It’s clear that there are many different versions of the franchise and many different ways to experience and enjoy it. It’s normal then that it can be difficult to introduce someone to Star Trek or to get into it on your own.

It’s clear that existing fans have many different kinds of Star Trek to enjoy but the rich history of the franchise makes it difficult for potential fans to jump into the mix and start enjoying one of the most popular science fiction series of all time. Since I had a rather bumpy introduction to Star Trek which resulted in my taking years to explore the franchise with any conscious dedication, I want to provide a review of possibly good starting points for potential fans. Here’s a look at the series as a whole with commentary on whether or not particular series or movies are a good place to begin with or should be kept for later or even still, avoided at all costs.

Star Trek: The Original Series – Good Place to Start:
The most obvious place to start is with Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a good idea because a lot of elements that appear in later series were introduced in episodes of TOS. However, based on the kind of person you’re trying to introduce to the world of Star Trek you might want to skip this or select just a few episodes. You can’t deny that the special effects have aged poorly. It’s a clear deterrent for younger audiences. Personally, I can generally put aside my issues with old special effects but since there are so many other Star Trek series and movies that have significantly better effects (or simply effects that have aged better or are still appealing), it’s difficult to sit and watch the original show with its bare bones effects.

If you decide to start here I wouldn’t recommend watching all three seasons of TOS. Like most TV series, there are really terrible episodes to be found in this series. The Original Series is a good starting point if you only watch a few episodes. I would say no more than roughly a season’s worth of episodes. That way you can choose what the Internet will tell you are the best episodes (feel free to disagree with the lists you find) and then base the rest of your Star Trek viewing on that. You can either finish watching all of the TOS episodes or move on to another series. That nice thing to keep in mind is that because Star Trek is (often) episodic in nature you can jump around from season to season without having to worry too much about it. TOS isn’t my favourite series and a lot of that has to do with how old it is compared to the rest of the franchise. However, there are some truly interesting and excellent episodes to be watched and you’re doing yourself a disservice by skipping out entirely on the original adventures of Captain Kirk, Spock, “Bones” McCoy and the rest of the crew.

Star Trek: The Animated Series – For Serious Fans Only:
Most people would be tempted to follow their viewing of TOS with the next series to be produced and often times that will lead them to The Next Generation. In truth, there was another Star Trek series before TNG. It was an animated series with a very unoriginal title. The show is a direct continuation of TOS but in animated form and in episodes that were half the length. It lasted for two seasons. If we consider each season of TOS and TAS as representing one year of the Enterprise’s five year mission, then TAS provides us a look into the last two years. I’ve only seen a handful of these episodes and while I enjoyed them they’re nothing spectacular. The animation is quite old and while it’s clear, it’s also very stiff and lacks emotion. I would stay away from TAS if you’re new to Star Trek. I believe it only exists for the biggest fans of TOS who are rewarded for watching by having much of the original casts provide the voice acting for their animated counterparts. If you’re going to watch an episode of TAS I think you’re better off just watching TOS which is superior to it in almost every way.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Top Contender for Best Place to Start:
TNG will always be remembered as the show that heralded the modern age of Star Trek and it’s definitively one of my favourites. It certainly has a great deal of problems with it, some of which impacts whether or not it’s a good place to start watching Star Trek. Like TOS, TNG is starting to look old. However, it looks much better on screen than anything TOS ever had. As the first series set in the 24th Century, TNG is a very good place to start because it sets up and leads into a lot of things explored in Deep Space Nine and Voyager. It will be problematic for viewers who wish to watch the entire show from start to finish as the first season is very bad. The second season marks a distinct improvement and the series is very enjoyable from seasons 3 to 6 and slows down a bit for the final season. It’s true that TNG suffered from inconsistent quality from episode to episode but there are enough strong episodes to carry the entire series. It just takes time to get there.

If you’re thinking of starting someone on Star Trek with TNG I fully support it. Similarly to TOS, the show’s execution is still very episodic. Most of the individual episodes happen in a vacuum, but not all. There are a few episodes that have a big enough impact on some of the main characters (notably Captain Picard, Data and Worf) that deal with events from previous episodes. However, I do suggest that you use an approach akin to the one I suggested for TOS. Catch a few of the early episodes of the first season to get you acquainted with the cast (all in all, I think there are less than 5 episodes that are worth your time in the first season). From there you can basically skip to anywhere else you would like to in the series. There are key episodes that are so important they’ll continue to shape major elements in the franchise throughout the spin-off series but a lot of those episodes also happen to be the better ones of the series. As such, look for a list of best TNG episodes and stick to watching those in chronological order. If you’re looking forward to exploring more Star Trek you can then move on to another series. If you’re enjoying all of TNG then by all means, take the time and watch more of it, maybe even the entire series, right away. There is no need to rush into watching the other series; they’ve all been off the air for years anyway.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager – Save the Best for Last:
I think the title says it pretty clearly. DS9 and VOY are two very good series in the franchise and in their own ways they’re better than TNG. DS9 in particular excels in the areas where TNG failed, particularly in the relationships between characters and carrying over elements from episode to episode. As such it was the first Star Trek series to take a serialized storytelling approach. This is no less apparent then during the Dominion War storyline which is also considered to be one of the high points of the series. VOY was also given an overarching story for the series and it not only adds momentum to the show but it gives it an identity that differentiates it from all the Star Trek shows that precede it.  What makes these good series is that they build on the foundation that TNG has setup. For you to be able to enjoy these stories fully you need to be aware of what happened before. It’s crucial to keep in mind that DS9 and VOY are spin-off series.

Consider DS9, the teaser portion of the pilot directly references one of the key points of TNG by dramatizing the events of the Battle of Wolf 359 from Commander Sisko’s point of view. The series also has main characters of a species other than human which include Ferengi, Bajorans and Cardassians, not to mention the importance of the Borg after their introduction in TNG. There are tons of great things to like about these later series and there are many, many really excellent episodes but to start with these series is doing you a disservice. You’re not only missing out on the setup of many important species, ideas and interplanetary politics, you’re also missing out of the stellar episodes from TNG that helped setup or first introduced those elements. I would hold off on watching these series until you’ve had your fill of the best that TNG has to offer. If you’ve tried watching TNG and you’re just not enjoying it as much as you thought you would or if you just want to start with the good stuff, by all means, skip to DS9 but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Star Trek: Enterprise – Do You Really Want More?
Newcomers might be tempted to start with this series and why not? It’s a prequel series and so, chronologically, it’s the first. I like to point out that it’s probably the worst place to start. It doesn’t have any of the highs that the previous series had. Instead, like TNG, it had a lot of expectations to live up to and it had to tell engaging stories while also setting up its own identity because it takes place in a different time that TOS and all three series set in the 24th Century. The challenge of doing those things was made worse because of its prequel status: ENT had to be a good Star Trek series without employing many of the best elements from Star Trek in the 24th Century and it had to stay consistent with everything that happens after it, canonically and chronologically speaking. Those particular challenges make the storytelling of ENT rather difficult because you can’t really feed off of too many Star Trek stories despite there being a few hundred episodes by the time ENT began to air.

It’s not surprising that ENT struggled with its identity for four seasons before being cancelled. It’s a problematic series for several reasons and the biggest one, aside from what I’ve already mentioned, is that the focus of the show was always being pulled in two directions. The first direction was acting as a prequel to Star Trek, the entire franchise, and that in itself could have been interesting. How did the United Federation of Planets come to be created and what was it like in its early years? But a show like that could hardly exist if you focused on one starship in particular and that’s what happened with ENT. The other direction in which it was being pulled was that this show is the closest one to our time and so it was used as a show that depicted our future. I think it was just too much to ask of one TV series that it be expected to reconcile the differences between our real world history and Star Trek history to tell engaging stories. In essence, ENT tried to be about too many things and ultimately ended up being about very little; never coalescing into something cohesive. It didn’t pick up steam like the other series before it. 

We’ll conclude on Wednesday with a look at all 12 Star Trek films. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Planet Savers review

Like all avid readers I have a rather long list of books I’d like to one day read. The list grows regularly as I discover authors I’ve never even heard about or when I discover books by authors I’ve already familiar with. Marion Zimmer Bradley is simply one writer of many whose works I’ve never sampled. I choose to start exploring her body of work by tackling one of her longest and most famous series, Darkover.

From what I’ve read online the series varies greatly in basically as many ways as it can. Books will vary in genre either science fiction or fantasy, often a combination of both. Some of the novels are nearly straight up adventure stories with interesting or strange elements while others have fascinating and often controversial themes are the heart of their narrative, particularly her novels dealings with the Renunciates. The series is notorious for having a loosely defined and often contradictory chronology. Speaking of its chronology, the series spans well over two millennia of time with more than one attempt from Earth to colonize the planet Darkover (one of them, at least, being accidental). Some books in the series are standalone novels while some are part of a storyline (some are even part of more than one storyline!). There isn’t even a standard format or length for the books as they also vary from short stories, to novella and longer novels. All of these above elements, while admittedly providing a picture of a convoluted and confusing series, didn’t deter me but what really sealed the deal is that it all just seems to detailed and fascinating. It sounded to me like a world in which you could really immerse yourself and discover Darkover the planet and its inhabitants as well as Darkover the series.

As a reader who really likes variety, Darkover sounds like a series tailor made to me, where one book doesn’t resemble the previous books too closely. Being a fan of comics, I’m also very familiar with long-running series written and illustrated by different creators throughout the years and dealing with difficult continuity not to mention intentional retcons. I’m not bothered by the fact that a series as big as Darkover is sprawling and inaccurate in details from book to book. It’s to be expected but more important I’m not a fan that gives more importance to a series’ consistency and accuracy of details than I give the story itself. Certainly series with grossly inaccurate elements, especially core elements specific to the series, are not only annoying but will turn away potential and existing readers. From what I can tell the inconsistancies of Darkover have to do with the internal history of the world which I am completely fine with considering the series cover several centuries. Details, inside the fictional world, will be forgotten and jumbled up. It’s only natural and acceptable that the writers (Bradley co-wrote several books in the series) aren’t too rigid with certain elements.

My point here is that more than anything else, Darkover seemed to promise not to be a boring read and it could potentially lead itself to be a “new” series for me to explore.

The Planet Savers was originally published
as a story in this issue of Amazing Stories.
I started, as regular readers of Shared Universe Reviews will guess, with the first published work in the series: The Planet Savers. The story originally appeared, in a shorter length, in the November 1958 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. It was first published in novel form in an Ace Double book, along with The Sword of Aldones, another Darkover novel, by Ace Books in 1962. It’s a very short book, truly a novella rather than a novel-length story but it’s as long as it’s need to be. Any longer and the story would feel padded or dragged out.

Set in a time when Darkover has been recolonized by Earth and there is a sustained Terran population on the planet. Dr. Randall Forth is concerned about the 48 year virus, a disease that spreads approximately every 48 years. It’s a serious illness that is often fatal to Terran and Darkovans, but not too native species of Darkover. Trailmen are immune to it but they act as incubators for the disease. The disease is usual pretty mild for the Trailmen and usually fatal for humans, thus the interest in finding a cure as it’s nearly time for another epidemic to start spreading. The Terran colonists are worried that they’ll be nearly wiped out and that Earth won’t provide any assistance to the survivors of the plague. The Terran colonists have the medical knowhow to develop a cure but they need blood samples from the Trailmen to work with.

Dr. Forth enlists the help of Dr. Jay Allison, the best qualified man for the job, with great difficulty. Part of this difficulty is that Dr. Allison’s personality isn’t suited to helping others. He’s a very difficult man to get along with. He’s an individual who has high regard for himself and would rather be alone than in the company of others. The other difficult with enlisting his help, aside from him being an unhelpful man, is that the real help is a repressed personality of his younger self. Dr. Forth manages to manifest that personality within Dr. Allison’s mind and make it the domineering personality. One given control of the body, Jason, as he calls himself, is the very opposite of Dr. Allison.

The mission is quite simple, yet fraught with danger.  Jason and a team made up of Terrans, Darkovan royalty and a Free Amazon guide (I believe she’s what will later be known as a Renunciate) are to travel to the Hellers, a treacherous mountain range that is the home of the Trailmen Nests. The Trailmen are humanoids living nearly exclusively in the trees located in the centre of the Hellers. Their Nests are inaccessible by air due to treacherous air currents. Jason is the perfect choice to lead to the Nests because he lived 8 years of his childhood amongst the Trailmen after his father’s plane crashed in the mountains. He not only knows the mountain passes but he’s familiar with the Trailmen’s language, their customs and he even remembers some of the individuals, namely his foster parents. Once they’ve arrived to the Nests, the crew must enlist volunteers from the Trailmen to travel back to the Terran settlements and assist in the development of a cure.

As you would expect from a story 103 pages in length, the plot is simple but it has a narrative device and a theme that adds quite a bit. The idea that a person can change so radically from one period in their life to another, such as is the case with Jason/Dr. Allison, is a fascinating one. Both Jason and Dr. Allison are the result of nurture, not nature. Their surroundings and their choices allowed for the development of their personalities. Jason’s time with the Trailmen cause him to grow into a specific kind of person. He’s more social, rather brash and straightforward, he’s a little rugged and unpolished but he’s also kind and willingly helpful. On the other hand, the development of Jar Allison and his career in the sciences resulted in his withdrawal form society and his progressed clinical detachment from others. Bradley cleverly uses a different form of narration based on which personality is in control. For the portions dealing with Dr. Allison the story is told in third person but when it’s Jason, it’s told in the first person. It’s a nice way to differentiate from personality to personality but the type narration in use also reinforces some of the elements of each man.

The world of Darkover isn’t very developed yet. In The Planet Savers, the first Darkover story, there is little concrete information provided about the series outside of what is necessary to the plot. However, it’s pretty clear that Earth has recolonized Darkover. It has done so previously at least several hundred years ago as the Darkovans are descended from Terrans who bred with native populations of Darkover. The result was a new breed of individuals who have psychic powers of some sort. Aside from that, the setting of the story is rather unclear.

There is also a very short story included in my edition of The Planet Savers. Titled “Waterfall”, the story tells of a noble Darkovan teenager. She is developing her psychic powers but she is being told that she will not be brought to one of the Towers to develop her powers as one of the older Hastur (Darkovan royalty) women fears the young teen’s powers. Unbeknownst to the woman, the teen is already able to use her psychic abilities to some degree, mostly to influence and harm others. The story is rather dark and negative after the much more hopeful The Planet Savers which is about different people and cultures setting aside their differences and working together for mutuality beneficial reasons. “Waterfall” clearly presents a different facet of the world of Darkover but it’s nice to see that there is yet even more to discover about this series.

My introduction makes it sound like I made up my mind about Darkover before I even took the time to read my first book from the series. I guess there is some truth to that but the book delivered. Not as spectacularly as I’d hoped and part of me is a little underwhelmed by the modest scale of the story, not to mention the execution. Yet The Planet Savers acts as a good sample of what the larger series is about. It feels like a big teaser and it’s apparent that Bradley had thought about Darkover, its inhabitants and the planet’s history for a considerable time before she actually jumped into the fray and pulled out a story to tell. This novella hints are many elements that aren’t properly developed but considering the dozens of novels that were written after this one chances are those elements were explore further. If nothing else, The Planet Savers entertained without overstaying its welcome while providing a good sample of what else can be found by delving into the rest of the series which I plan to do.