“Star Trek: Discovery” Season 1 – An Exploration of Identity and the Cost of War

      “Star Trek: Discovery” is enjoyable, but not without its flaws. It is a very different kind of Trek and feels like a mixture of the Abrams Reboot Universe meets DS9. DS9 is the far better show but this show explores a lot of similar themes, such as the cost of war and issues of identity. These are the core reasons why I enjoyed the show, beyond the characters of the main cast.

The show was created by Bryan Fuller (of NBC “Hannibal) fame) and Alex Kurtzman (who co-wrote the first to Abrams Trek films.

The story follows Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) a human raised by Vulcans and a member of Starfleet responsible for starting the Klingon-Federation War, while a new Religious faction lead by T’Kuvma seeks to unite all the houses against the Federation. It is up to her and the crew of the Discovery lead by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) to find a solution to end the conflict she started.

SPOILERS Ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I am a Trekkie, and this is a universe that at the core enriches what already exists in a Universe that spans The Original Series (TOS) to Voyager (VOY), from other universes like the Mirror Universe and Abramsverse. It is filled with countless aliens, conflicts and self-discovery. Star Trek: Discovery takes place 10 years before TOS and explores the details of the Klingon-Federation war. Characters are forced to take risks and pushed to their limits.

The Crew of Discovery – The crew is a diverse band of misfits. You have the Chief Engineer Stamets (played by Anthony Rapp) is gay, the ruthless Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) the fearful First Officer Saru (Doug Jones) and Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is autistic. To say nothing of a human raised on Vulcan, the main hero Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the conflicted Klingon sleeper-agent Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Their journeys drive the show and make it worth watching.

Cadet Tilly – As someone on the autism spectrum (aspergers) it was wonderful finally seeing a character explicitly like me on “Star Trek.” Tilly is a character whose arc involves growing into confidence and taking risks, as so much of what drives her is the safety of her environment. Which for the longest time, was what I needed. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is how a person grows and Tilly faces that challenge multiple times…from going undercover as her Mirror Universe counterpart (who is an evil Captain) to dangerous away missions. I think someday she will achieve her dream of becoming a Starfleet Captain.

Chief Engineer Stamets – Stamets is the first openly gay character in any Star Trek. He is also the core of the ship, when in the end, he is the only one who can work The Spore Drive…a device that can warp the Discovery through space, time and even between dimensions. His heart is torn out when his boyfriend is killed, but he finds balance and closure in one of the most beautifully executed arcs of the show.  He is my favorite “Star Trek” engineer at this point besides O’Brien and Scotty.

First Officer Saru – Another of my favorites out of “Star Trek” lore at this point is Saru. This character is a Kelpien. He is part of a prey species on his world, and was hunted by the larger beings. How they advanced so far has yet to explained but his arc is finding the strength to be Captain. Doug Jones who I loved as the creature in “The Shape of Water,” once again shows why he is the monster master. He gives so much expression with his inflection, and eyes. Saru is my favorite character on the show and the one person who isn’t morally compromised. He is Starfleet and I hope he can Captain the Discovery next season.

The Spore Drive -The discovery in Discovery is all tied to the Spore Drive. The Drive is infinite possibilities as the ways of riding the Spore Network are discovered. It also provides conflict too as to use the Drive, it has to be controlled by a living organism (who is at risk everytime they make a “jump.” The discoveries are what drive the action and they are all tied to the Spore Drive. Whether it is Stamets in the network talking to other versions of himself, jumping to the mirror Universe or jumping to many locations in an instant…these are only some of the countless possibilities created by this device.

The Mirror Universe – At one point we cross over into the Mirror Universe…a world familiar to Trekkies where our heroes are villains. This is a 4 episode arc with tons of twists and reveals. We discover darker sides of characters we didn’t know before (as they have to pretend to be their evil counterparts so the Terran Empire doesn’t discover them), and get some wrenching emotional payoffs. This arc is later in the show, but has easily some of the best storytelling.

War and Loss – The other theme of the show, beyond discovery that the Spore Drive grants is the cost of war. We see this in the Klingon-Federation War, and how it starts, when Burnham’s anger martyr’s the Klingon leader T’Kuvma, after he had murdered her Captain. We lose a lot of people in the war, from Voq (An undercover Klingon sleeper-agent on Discovery) killing Stamets’s boyfriend, to the destruction of the Klingon Death Ship (the flagship of their fleet), to near obliteration of Qo’noS (The Klingon homeworld). The war makes the Federation ruthless and we see just how destructive the Klingon Empire can be.

Exploration of Identity – Identity is a major theme of the story, with the characters who best represent this being Michael Burnham (a human raised by Vulcans) and Ash Tyler (a Klingon pretending to be human). In both cases it involves finding balance within themselves and letting go of anger. These two identities are the main arc of the show beyond characters dealing with the actions of their Mirror Universe counterparts. This exploration starts in the beginning at the Pilot and never stops until the end of the season as it is in the Finale that Burnham and Tyler find the inner peace they are looking for.

Okay:

The Pilot – The pilot is long and boring. Though it is beautiful and has great action it could have been one really long episode or revealed and flashbacks, which would have served the story better. All it really does is set up Michael Burnham’s backstory and the reason why she is now on Discovery. Beyond that, we knew this show was about the Klingon-Federation War and didn’t need every detail as to why the Federation was now fighting it, especially the war’s resolution is not played out within the first few episodes.

Ash Tyler – Voq is Ash Tyler’s true self. He is  the Torchbearer of the Klingons and he imprints Ash’s identity upon himself as to get the secrets on Discovery I liked the romance with Burnham, but I felt their needed to be more knowledge on both whom Tyler and Voq were. They are useful plot devices, but they never grow beyond that. They both deserved better given each is compelling in their own way but in them being 2 separate identities the exploration they both needed is never received.

Fanservice – Captain Lorca has a tribble (no payoff), we see Andorians, Tellerites and Vulcans (founding members of the Federation), Burnham’s adopted dad is Sarek and in the end we see the original Enteprise with Captain Pike. Some of this was good, the other species showing up was something I wanted when I heard about this show, but ending it with Pike was total fanservice and was like the Khan reveal in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” It was not needed and only hurt the story.

The Cons:

The Klingon Scenes – Klingons only speak Klingon and in turn we get no time to know the characters, because we are reading the subtitles. Because of this, we are told how the Klingons are but we rarely get to see their actions beyond the fights with Discovery.

The Ending of Captain Lorca’s Arc – Lorca is the “ends justify the means” Captain. We learn how he killed his crew to keep them from being taken prisoner. We see that ruthlessness again when he saves Federation colonies and how he will do anything to save the Federation. Well, he’s a Mirror Universe rebel who just wants to be Emperor. That was such an awful payoff as they just made him a creeper villain. All complexity was erased so that his arc could be simplified. I hated it.

In future seasons I would like to see much less fanservice, more focus on discovery, more problem solving that isn’t through violence and some of the characters who left at the end of this season returning. The core of this show is great and even with all the flaws that brought it down, this a show that I will rewatch when it returns to Netflix. If you are a fan of “Star Trek,” chances are you will enjoy this show as much as I did. At the end of the day it captures the core ideas of “Star Trek,” and even the worst of the cons didn’t take way from my enjoyment of this season.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great even with all of the flaws.

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The Shape of Water (2017): A Transcendent Romantic Fairy Tale

   “The Shape of Water” might end up being my favorite film of the year. This is a film that is beautifully told and reminds me of “Beauty and the Beast,” meets “Amelie” but with so much more going on than either of those stories. This is a film where every character, whether minor or major matters and out of it we get a compelling love story that is so much more. This is a story about characters who aren’t given a voice (both literally and metaphorically) finding their voice and from there, a level of transcendence or change within themselves or their situation. The cast was wonderfully done and for my non-spoiler thoughts…I can’t wait to watch it again. This is easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best work, and given that he was co-writer and co-producer as well as the director, this story was clearly his vision and it is beautiful. Seriously, check this film out if you get the chance.

The film was directed, co-wrote and co-produced Guillermo del Toro, co-written by Vanessa Taylor and co-produced with J. Miles Dale.

The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works at a secret government agency with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and sharing an apartment with her closeted friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). Her world is soon changed when a government agent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a mysterious “asset,” a creature who changes Elisa’s life forever.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is that of the 1950’s of the United States but with fairy tale, fantasy and sci. fi. elements…both in how the story is presented and the amphibian man being so central to the plot, as well as the abilities he has. It is also a world full of twists since spies and government agents inhabit this cold world universe and the secret lab where most of the action takes place.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. From Octavia Spencer’s Zelda, who is Elisa’s translator and calls out how bad their situation is (as the help no one notices or cares about them, just takes them for granted), Giles, who understands Elisa’s love for the creature and helps protect them and both rescue the creature from the lab and getting them both the docks. He is the narrator. Michael Shannon’s Colonel is unhinged and broken and is sympathetic in that, even though he never stops being a threat and monster. Elisa’s and the creature’s romance drives the story and it is awesome. I loved how confident Elisa is in her sexuality and her attachment to the creature as well as the creature’s humanity slowly being revealed as he opens up to her. Doug Jones once again owns this alien type role he is in. I can’t wait to buy this movie when it comes out.

The Soundtrack and Cinematography – The soundtrack has a fairy tale and jazz feel to it, intermixed with this dark foreboding when we are at the lab and the Colonel is on screen. The cinematography is amazing too, it reminded me of “Amelie” with the use of color contrasts but focusing in on Elisa’s perspective. Alexandre Desplat did a great job on the soundtrack and I loved Dan Laustsen’s cinematography.

The Romance – The romance is the main drive of the story and it is beautifully done. It starts with Elisa and the creature touching hands separated by glass, to her leaving him eggs, to eating in his area with him and teaching him sign language…to his rescue and eventually having to let him go as he dies not being in the salt water but has given Giles back his hair and healed a wound he caused on Giles accidentally. The romance is the core of the film and because it illustrates different aspects of the characters and the world they inhabit.

Surrealism and Fairy Tales – The Fairy Tale element is revealed most profoundly in the opening shot where Giles is giving the premise of a monster who turned two lovers’ world upside down…as we see a drowned how with Elisa floating, as if sleeping in the water. There is other imagery like this that gives the film a surrealist element and from that the fairy tale elements of the love story are given more power in their presentation. I love stories like this (“One-Hundred Years of Solitude, most Haruki Murakami, etc.) and this is one of the best presentations of this type of story.

Fighting Adversity and the Voice of the Voiceless – This is a film about giving voice to the voiceless in both the literal sense (our heroes being a mute and an amphibian creature who cannot speak), Zelda, who is black lady with an oppressive husband and Giles being in the closet and kept out from the wealth he once bad before as the marketing world just sees him as a has been. Each of them are trapped (the monster) or oppressed in different ways in a society that ignores them and it is the rescuing and finally freeing of the monster that Zelda finally speaks up against her husband and calls the cops on the Colonel, Giles fights and defends the monster and Elisa and Elisa transcends as she sacrifices herself to save the creature and her cuts she received as a baby are turned into gills, she is reborn by the creature and free to be with the creature, something that would have never been possible before. It is also her drive that helps the others to change their lives too, as she is directly fighting to system by freeing their “asset.”

Okay: First Act Goes a Little Long – The only real criticism I could find with the film is the first third of the film does go on a little long, but it picks up the moment the rescue plan is put into action by Elisa and after that, it doesn’t stop…and it does a good job setting up the world so I can’t put it is a con.

I highly recommend “The Shape of Water.” This film is going to make my Top 5 films of 2017 and if you are looking for a film where you will notice more each time around, as well simply enjoying a beautiful fairy tale that gives voice to the voiceless and has wonderfully compelling characters, who each get full arcs. I cared about where each their arcs were going, even the villain as no one was as simple as they first appeared to be. The film was all about layers and reveals, both in the nature of the characters and the creature and the payoff of their arcs. Check this film out, if you haven’t yet. Guillermo del Toro has done it again and I can’t wait to see what masterpiece he makes next.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Hellboy (2004): A Solid Overall Arc That Drags in Parts With Missed Opportunities

Hellboy Poster

   Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors and I’m glad he tacked the “Hellboy” comics as they are a lot of fun and I like the subversion of what it means to be a demon in popular culture that these comics do. Hellboy is a flawed human whose issues of anger are made worse by what he was born as, but it doesn’t wholly define him, so he gets actual character arcs in the films he’s had thus far. These are solid films, I wouldn’t call the first one great, as it does have a few things that bring it down from being that, but it is good.

      The film was directed and written by Guillermo del Toro with the producers being Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson and Llyod Levin. Peter Briggs was the creator of “Hellboy” and also worked on the initial story with del Toro.

     The story involves Hellboy’s (Ron Perlman) arrival on Earth when the Nazi’s led by Rasputin (Karel Roden) are using a Portal and magic to bring about the end. It is here his adopted father Trevor (John Hurt) takes him in as they must deal with the fallout of the failed Nazi Plot and the fact that their enemies aren’t through with Hellboy yet.

The Pros: The World – The world is amazing and captures the look of the comics really well. The fact that Guillermo del Toro was the one creating in this world is to his credit as he clearly loves it. The visuals are stark and everything feels like it is from another world at the right time.

The Soundtrack – Marco Beltrami is fantastic and manages to capture both the magical and historical mixture of aspects that make up the film. Whether it is the opening or even capturing humorous moments, his score captures them brilliantly.

The Cinematography – Guillermo Navarro does a wonderful job of bringing the visuals of del Toro’s imagination to life as each scene feels like it is out of a comic book and tension is created in how the shots are set.

The Characters – The characters are the strongest part of the film outside of the world and design.

Agent John  Myers – Myers is one of the blander characters but he is our outsider perspective of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense in which Abe Sapien and Hellboy are agents for. He is good at showing the wonder at each new revelation and at his core is a good guy.

Liz Sherman – Liz has an arc outside of Hellboy but her relationship to Hellboy really drives the plot. Her main arc is learning to control her powers and to face the anxiety she has attached to it from all the people she has hurt.

Abe Sapien – Abe doesn’t really have an arc in this but gives us the alien Spock perspective as he doesn’t have the unstableness of Liz and Hellboy. I liked his character a lot and wish more could have been done with him as he showed himself to be the brains of the operation multiple times.

Trevor Bruttenholm – John Hurt plays Trevor, who is the leader of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and has a great arc as it is through him we meet all the villains and the one who truly cares for and loves Hellboy. It is Trevor’s love that helps Hellboy find himself when he is being used as a weapon by Rasputin and even though he is killed, his legacy lives on through his team.

Grigori Rasputin – This villain was good but not great. He fits the standard evil wizard trope but with demons…but shows he can be more too as he clearly loves Isla and is devoted to the cause as he was granted immortality by a demon inhabiting his body. I felt more could have been done to explore his motivations and backstory, but he works as someone who does have some level of honor.

Karl Rupert Kroenen

Karl Ruprecht Kroenen – This Nazi assassin is one of my favorite characters. He looks like Voldo from the Soul Series and no matter how many times he gets killed he keeps coming back. He’s a masochist who lives for inflicting the pain he feels on others and is a zealot. This is the guy who kills Trevor and has the highest kill count of our heroes. I was hoping he’d survive this film if they decided to bring him back since not only does he have a great design but as a villain he is very much his own perfect terror.

Hellboy – Ron Perlman really does a great job as Hellboy, a teenage demon just trying to do right by others and himself while still dealing with anger issues and a big ego. The character has a big heart that shines through multiple times as we see him become more fully aware of his issues and face them over the course of the film.

Okay: Isla Haupstein – I liked her character as she brings back Rasputin, sadly that is all she does though. I wanted to know her motivations beyond her love of Rasputin as she deserved more and Bridget Hodson does a great job with what little she is aloud to do.

The Demons – These guys are tentacles, except Hellboy, which is boring. The Hellhounds did look cool though and they did feel like a threat even if they didn’t have all that much variety.

Cons: Women Only Exist to be in Relationships – Liz and Isla largely exist in the plot in relationship to the ones who love them. Everything they do is a reaction to this which doesn’t give them a chance to be full characters in their own right.

Pacing – There are times this film really drags. Many scenes could have been cut and would have brought the film’s score higher.

Faceless Agents – So many agents get killed and none of them really stand out besides Myers. The rest are Red Shirts and exist to die to establish a threat.

   This is a solid and flawed film that is well worth checking out, especially if you are a fan of del Toro you will probably enjoy this. The designs are fantastic and Kroenen is a great villain. I loved his design. Hellboy is also a great flawed protagonist dealing with the role everyone wants him to play (both good and bad) and growing up since he is pretty much a teenager in a whole new world. I wish the women had been written better as Isla fascinated me and Liz seemed to exist to be with Hellboy, though I’m glad they had her face her anxiety and grow from it. Del Toro is one of my favorite directors and this film illustrates some of the things he excels at in his films.

Final Score: 7.8 / 10