Thursday, May 31, 2007

“Renaissance Man” (VOY)

It’s light on philosophical pondering, heavy on eye-candy, and throws in a cliché or two, but for me it’s still one of the most entertaining installments of Voyager.

“Renaissance Man” starts by creating a suspenseful atmosphere. Bodies are piling up in the morgue as the Doctor renders the senior staff unconscious one by one. We feel the tension rise as he juggles impersonating more and more people. And it all builds to his showdown with Tuvok in sickbay.

Now Worf seemed like the chief of security long before he became the chief of security. In any given episode you knew that was his function on the ship. Tuvok on the other hand lives in the shadow of Spock and Data—making him seem more like a science officer than chief of security. But make no mistake about it, Vulcans can be very menacing security forces. They have the brains and the brawn, and in this scene there is no question that Tuvok is in charge.

He anticipates and deflects the Doctor’s attempt to render him unconscious. And when he starts destroying holo-emitters there is no mistaking that he is a force to be reckoned with. Without the human sentimentality to get in the way, there is no doubt in his mind that the Doctor has been compromised in some way and is a threat to the ship.

Enter the eye-candy and one of the greatest chase sequences on a starship.

First the Doctor leaps through a window and his desk, before donning his mobile emmiter. Then he lures Tuvok into a holodeck full of copies of himself. He commandeers engineering and ejects the core.

In the corridor he takes on the form of B’Ellana, and again confronts Tuvok. This is another great moment where Tuvok’s no-nonsense approach with the faux pregnant woman leaves no doubt that his is the chief of security.

And the Doctor makes what is probably the only Matrix-like move in any Star Trek installment, running up the wall, across the ceiling, and down the other side of the corridor.

It’s over the top, but it’s just fun. So are the Doctor’s “deathbed confessions” about his list of the Captain’s most questionable command decisions, Tuvok’s sub-cutaneous eruption on his Vulcan nether-regions, and his undying love for Seven of Nine.

Sure, the story plays on the old ruthless-criminal-undone-by-his-partner-with-a-conscience cliché, but with everything else going on, I can excuse it. Besides, one of the aliens gets to make a great Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference: “We’ll drop you off in the Vinri system. The inhabitants are mostly harmless.”

As a slight aside on the Heirarchy aliens—or as my friend calls them “the-hippo-butt-guys”—I have a pet theory about their make-up. Star Trek: The Next Generation—The Continuing Mission by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, shows a Michael Westmore sketch of an early concept for the Pakleds from the TNG episode “Samaritain Snare.” (See page 84 if you have copy of the book.) The Pakleds ultimately were given a much simpler look, I’m guessing for budgetary reasons. But I think Michael Westmore hung onto that concept. Although the book never says so, this early, more elaborate version of Pakleds appears to be the inspiration for the Heirarchy aliens.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about “Renaissance Man” is the idea that each member of the crew has a holographic template. Is that a standard Starfleet practice? (If it is, it would explain how Barcaly was able to replicate the crew so easily in TNG, “Hollow Pursuits,” but it just seems like such a bad idea.) I suppose these may be scans the Doctor had taken for medical reasons, along the lines of what he was doing in the episode “Latent Image.”

For the sake of the story, we’ll just assume the templates must exist, and that the crew had all signed consent forms for the likeness to be used within the terms of certain contractual obligations . . .

The episode also made me wonder why the Doctor is such a poor fighter. When he’s struggling hand-to-hand with aliens he really seems to be struggling. I know, he’s a doctor, not a solider . . . But it seems like he should be able to make himself stronger than any biological life-form. While he may have been unprepared to do that back in season one (as in trying to pick up a sword in “Heroes and Demons”), it seems like physical strength is the kind of thing an Emergency Command Hologram might have given a little thought to.

It occurred to me that his tactic of losing his “substance” and allowing his attacker to pass through him (again, see “Heroes and Demons”) couldn’t have worked here. If he lacked substance his mobile emitter would fall off. So that’s probably a trick he has to reserve for sickbay or the holodeck.

While this may not have contributed anything of real significance to the Doctor’s ongoing quest to be recognized as a real person, it certainly took those basic ideas and spun them into an entertaining way to spend 40 minutes.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What's in a Unimatrix?

Earlier, while discussing the fractal-like organization of the Borg collective, I raised the following issue:
On the Matter of Unimatricies - The term Unimatrix has been thrown around as a unit or division within the collective. Each unimatrix is a miniature collective, much as I have described above. We know that the Unicomplex is called Unimatrix 001. Beyond that, I am not certain if the term has been used consistently enough to be precisely defined. Is each Borg ship a Unimatrix, or does a Unimatrix encompass multiple ships? In other words, where does a Unimatrix fit in the layers of collectives? Any thoughts or observations on this would be appreciated.
Recently I saw "Dark Frontier" (VOY) again and drew a significant conclusion: I don't think the writers had any clue what a Unimatrix is.

The episode manages to use the term in at least two different and seemingly contradictory ways. In the opening sequence the Borg "coffin" ship says, "A vessel has been detected at Unimatrix 422, Grid 03." Later the Borg sphere sounds the alert, "A vessel has been detected at Unimatrix 422, Grid 116."

So it's first use makes a Unimatrix seem to be some kind of coordinate system used to identify the location of objects in space, analogous to the Starfleet use of the term sector. Just as Earth is located at sector 001, the Borg Unicomplex is located at Unimatrix 001. Each Unimatrix appears to be subdived into more than 100 'grids' of some kind.

So far so good.

Then we see a flashback where the Hansens examine a sleeping drone they have transported over to their ship. Studying the drone's "proximity tranciever" they learn that its previous designation was "3 of 5, tertiary adjunct of Unimatrix 1" - and firmly believe this means he once served very close to the fabled Borg Queen. So here, the term Unimatrix appears to refer to a division within the collective.

I've tried to reconcile these two conflicting uses of the term. Perhaps there is a relationship between the "geographic" use of Unimatrix, and the organizational use of Unimatrix. So all the Borg in a particular spatial Unimatrix are given a matching Unimatrix designation. This works well for the Unicomplex itself - it's location is Unimatix 001, and the group of drones living there are all part of Unimatrix 001. But the picture gets far more complicated when you start adding in all the Borg ships that are constantly moving around.

As a ship traveled through different spatial Unimatricies, the drones would constantly change their Unimatrix designation. This begins to explain why the Hansens spoke of the drone's previous designation - implying that it has changed over time. But how was it that of all the drones they studied on that cube just one, had ever been located near the Unicomplex? It's possible, but seems strange.

Then we have to contend with the fact that Seven of Nine's designation at the time she was freed from the collective was "tertiary adjunct of Unimatrix 01" even though she was geographically no where near the Unicomplex at the time. (Maybe the Borg hadn't gotten around to changing her designation. So much for Borg efficiency . . . )

The more I've tried to explain away the inconsistencies, the more my head hurts. So either the writers were just throwing the term around because it sounded cool, or as Borg adapted their use of the term changed so that back in the days of the Hansen's it meant one thing, but "now" it means something else.

Again, any thoughts, theories, or relevant information is welcome.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - "Orphans" (Grand Prize Winner)

This is a review of the Grand Prize winner from the Strange New Worlds 9 collection. It is therefore more thorough and contains significant spoilers.

One of the draw backs of many episodes of Star Trek is that in the end our heroes fly off into the galaxy and completely leave behind the alien/planet/problem-of-the-week never to be heard of again. The grand prize winning stories picks up one of these dropped story lines and follows through. Consider the episode"The Hunted" ( TNG).

In this story the Angosian government created genetically enhanced soldiers. When the war was over, the soldier were discarded, confined to a penal moon because they were too violent to be reintegrated into society. We learn all of this when one of these soldiers, Roga Danar, escapes and runs amok on the Enterprise. But when the episode is over, Picard literally beams off of the planet when these super-soldiers storm the Angosian capital.

And we never hear of the Angosians again . . .

. . . until now.

Now we get find out what became of Roga Danar and the rest of his fellow warriors. The story is called "Orphans" by R. S. Belcher. Like many stories in this collection, it pulls together threads from various series (DS9 and TOS in particular). As the story opens Dr. Bashir and Admiral Pressman (from the TNG episode "Pegasus") approach Danar and his fellow soldiers on the behest of Section 31. They want to recruit them for a special mission against the Jem'Hadar.

The combination of characters is brilliantRoga Danar and the other Angosian soldiers, Dr. Bashir, and the Jem'Hadarall genetically enhanced to some degree. It leads to a show down between the two groups of super-soldiers, but along the way allows Danar and Bashir to confront their uncertanties about their own identities. The Jem'Hadar are completely genetically engineered - they are manufactured, given their identity as ruthless, relentless warriors. But for Danar and Bashir it isn't as clear where what is really them stops and where the genetic enhancements start.

Their identity crisis culminates on a mission to keep the Guardian of Forever from the hands of the Dominion, which adds another layer to this theme. The Guardian itself is a constructed entity of some kind, and we get at least a glimpse of its self-concept as well.

The set up is great, the theme is compelling, having the Angosians face off with the Jem'Hadar is a stroke of brilliance. However I do have some minor complaints about how the story plays out.

First, the story is told in the third person, but basically from Roga Danar's point of view. However, at some points the story delves into Bashir's inner thoughts. In a novel it is a lot easier to sustain a change in point of view like that, but in a short story it can be a little bit disorienting. I just wonder if there could have been another way to give insight into Bashir's feelings without leaving Danar's point of view.

Second, the ending bothers me a little on a couple of levels. (Here's where some of the biggest spoilers come in - don't say you weren't warned.) At the end of the story the Guardian of Forever vanishes - it moves through itself and is gone. Now, I'm not going to claim the Guardian couldn't do that, but to me it's just a matter of respect. The Guardian is one of the most enduring and beloved icons of all of Star Trek from one of it's strongest episodes. To me you can't just make an icon disappear like that, especially not the Guardian of Forever. It should be there . . . well, forever.

To quote Pressman: "So let me get this straight. You just let one of the most ancient and powerful creations in the universe off its leash. We have no idea what it will do or what its agenda is." Something about loosing the Guardian just rubs me the wrong way.

Also, Danar's resolution is a little ambiguous. He feels like he has finally learned to accept himself for who he is. But I don't know how that addresses the chemical-biological-behavioral Pandora's Box that these soldiers have opened up inside them. Coming to terms with yourself is a great theme, but I just wonder how well it could actually solve Danar's problems.

But take that criticism as it is intended, as small points of concern in a very strong story, with a great premise. The follow-up to Angosian history, tying in Section 31, Admiral Pressman, and the Jem'Hadar, the inner turmoil of the characters, the competing agendas of everyone involved in this missionit is all great story telling.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Star Trek Ruminations on Ex Astris Scientia

Ex Astris Scientia's list of links was recently updated. I was thrilled (and surprised) to find my little blog on that very selective list (down at the bottom under "Personal Sites"). I consider that a real honor. Bernd - thanks for adding me to your list.