This year’s fall colors continue to be somewhat disappointing, but the weather has been nice and I’ve enjoyed being able to have open windows and fresh air so far into October. Sure, all the leaves have surned a sort of weird, muddy yellow-brown color, but it’s been in the mid-to-high 70s all week. That said, I’m still pretty pleased that temperatures are finally going to be down into the 50s and 60s this week, as all this nice weather has started to cut into soup, chili and squash season and I’m ready for fall cooking. I’ve got a spice cupboard full of curry and tandoori and five spice and other warm things that have just been waiting for some cooler weather.
I didn’t write much this week, though I did do my normal coverage of Star Trek: Discovery and The Shannara Chronicles. What I did do was quite a bit of reading; I made it through several books, which I’m looking forward to writing about soon. This week, watch for the regular Star Trek and Shannara posts, though tomorrow’s Star Trek review may not be out til Tuesday as I have several errands that will keep me out of the house and away from the computer tomorrow. My big goals in the coming week, however, are to 1) exercise every day, at least 30 minutes of cardio because I need to get back on track at some point, and 2) write three book reviews, because I have a significant backlog again and a lot of them are excellent books that I have lots of feelings about. Three book reviews won’t get me caught up by the end of the week, but if I could do that between now and, say, Thanksgiving, I might be caught up.
On the bright side, I’m well past my reading goal for the year, with two and half months still to go.
SFWA President Cat Rambo has a two-partresponse to Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic report that is worth reading. It’s good to see the findings of that report being taken seriously and that steps are being taken to address some of the genre’s problems.
One of the books I read this week was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s upcoming novel of manners, and I loved it. I also loved Moreno-Garcia’s essay on the genesis of The Beautiful Ones. I recommend reading both essay and book. (It’s out Tuesday! There’s still time to pre-order!)
One of the things I loved about season one of The Shannara Chronicles was how unabashedly YA the show was, and, while I enjoyed the season two premiere, I nevertheless had some mixed feelings about what seemed to be a turn towards more adult-targeted action fantasy. The second episode of the season, “Wraith,” takes a step back from action in favor of focusing on soap opera and political intrigue, and it’s deliciously fun. It does feel decidedly less YA than last season, with several older characters being introduced and last year’s crop of teens played by twenty-somethings feeling much more their actual age. It’s another aspect of the shift in tone with the show’s move from MTV to Spike, but it still works. “Wraith” is a solidly enjoyable hour that smartly uses short scenes and quick cuts to keep things moving along briskly in a dialogue-heavy episode.
Wil & Mareth
The episode opens with Wil and Mareth running from the wraiths that found them last week. Or, rather, Wil is running to Shady Vale to find his uncle Flick and Mareth is sticking with him because she insists that Wil is her best chance of finding Allanon. When the two of them duck into a very pretty cave to escape the wraiths, we learn that Mareth is Pyria’s daughter and was estranged from her mother before Pyria’s death back in season one. As they continue towards Shady Vale, Wil and Mareth argue over magic, with Wil insisting that he’s just an ordinary guy who wants to live an ordinary life and Mareth opining that having magic is a gift and a responsibility—while also pointing out that no matter what Wil says, he’s still been using his magic and that if he really didn’t want it he would have gotten rid of the elfstones long since. It’s a pretty classic fantasy theme, but it’s perennially interesting to see characters work through the whole magic-as-burden-and-curse vs. magic-as-gift-and-responsibility debate; I only hope the show doesn’t get distracted and forget they brought it up.
When Wil and Mareth arrive at Shady Vale, they find Wil’s childhood home in shambles, but Flick Ohmsford is still alive. Wil patches his uncle up a bit, and Flick gives some more history of Wil’s father Shea Ohmsford, Allanon, and the last war against the warlock lord. It turns out that Shea wasn’t driven mad by overusing the elfstone, but from refusing to embrace his power. It seems that this might be the encouragement and validation Wil needed to embrace his identity as a Shannara, although it’s at odds with everything Flick raised Wil to believe all these years. Still, I’m inclined to forgive this inconsistency in the interest of moving along from this boring ass plot. I’m very interested in Mareth and her hunt for her deadbeat druid dad, but Wil—adorable as he is—has always been the weakest character of the show, and his family drama in deeply boring.
Eretria, Lyria & Leah
Last time we saw this pair, they’d been captured by Rovers, and I was looking forward to seeing them escape this week. Instead, they are “rescued” almost immediately by a bounty hunter named Garet Jax, who hints at Lyria’s secret identity before knocking Eretria out and leaving with Lyria. In a surprising (due to timing only) twist, Lyria turns out to be the princess of the human kingdom of Leah; Garet Jax was sent by her mother, Queen Tamsin, to retrieve her. Tamsin is currently receiving the still-struggling King Ander, and she wants the elven king to marry Lyria and unite their kingdoms after years of disagreement between them. Ander has some reservations and doesn’t want to be trapped in a loveless marriage. We find out that he and Catania are now in a relationship, though she believes it’s his duty as king to do what’s best for his people, even if that does mean a political marriage. Eretria shows up and is justifiably upset with Lyria, which is exacerbated by Tamsin’s manipulation. Eretria’s about to leave with Allanon to go find Wil when General Riga shows up and kidnaps the druid. She decides to go after them, sending Catania to tell King Ander about what’s happened, but Catania is intercepted by one of Ander’s guards, who kills her (or at least stabs her), outing himself to the audience as a Crimson collaborator.
It is a lot to take in.
Fortunately, all this mess of events is delivered in short, snappy scenes that stay laser-focused on their point. If anything, we could have used a handful of interstitial scenes to explain some of what’s going on. I would have liked to see a little of Eretria tracking Garet Jax and Lyria, for example, and it would have been nice to have a little more of a sense of the relationship between Ander and Catania before now. I mean, how did that happen? Still, there’s something rather refreshing about the lack of hand-holding here and there’s a pleasing kind of honesty about the show being willing to just go balls to the wall with this mix of family drama and political intrigue. And it helps that the intrigue is so delightful. Ander isn’t always the most likeable fellow, and we’re still getting a sense of who he is as a king, so it’s not obvious yet whether Tamsin is justified or not in her vendetta against the elves. Her self-interested calculation may be perfectly sensible. Similarly, Tamsin’s assessment of her daughter and Tamsin’s frank statements to Eretria are at least somewhat accurate. Lyria is at best an unreliable narrator, and it will be interesting to see what she does next. It’s a little disappointing to see what seemed last week to be a sweet and healthy same-sex relationship broken up this early in the season, but there’s always the hope of a happy reunion later on.
What works both best and worst about the stuff going on in Leah is probably Leah itself. The wide shots of Tamsin’s castle are almost cartoonish, and there’s a very poorly composited green screen shot right as Ander and Allanon arrive, but the interior sets are decent enough. I suspect these might be reused sets from Arborlon in season one, but changes in set dressing, lighting and costuming help to make Leah feel real and lived in. The bordello scene is surprisingly not disgusting towards women and could even have been a bit more risqué without being amiss. Overall, there’s something of an Emerald City-inspired feel to it all that I liked, for wall that it is derivative. I liked the variety of costumes—even Lyria’s bizarre open-crotched dress. What I appreciated most of all, however, was the diversity. While the first season of the show had a tendency to cast actors of color in significant supporting roles against a backdrop of whiteness (a common criticism of shows attempting to bring diversity to the screen), Leah is full of diverse crowd shots that make it clear that this is a criticism that someone in charge, somewhere, heard and took to heart and has worked to improve upon in this little corner of television.
Bandon is still hunting for Wil when he comes upon some of Riga’s Crimson torturing a healer from Storlock. Bandon kills the Crimson soldiers and takes over torturing the gnome, reading his mind to find out where Wil went. He leaves the gnome alive, even heals him, before leaving to go find Wil, who is still in Shady Vale with Flick and Mareth. When Bandon finally catches up to Wil, we find out that he doesn’t want to kill Wil; he wants Wil as an ally, even trying to manipulate Wil into compliance by reading Wil’s mind and bringing up Wil’s own grievance against Allanon, who Bandon insists is the real enemy. What Bandon really wants, however, is the skull of the Warlock Lord, and he’s been told that “the Shannara” knows where it is. It’s not Wil who knows, though; it’s Flick, who was there when Allanon and Shea Ohmsford defeated the Warlock Lord and hid his parts. When Wil refuses to join Bandon, Bandon takes Flick and gives Wil three days to find Allanon and bring Allanon to Bandon.
It’s a difficult task that Bandon sets for Wil, kind of unreasonably so, but this is a fantasy show. I figure next week will be another action-adventure episode, with Wil rushing to find and rescue Allanon so they can go and rescue Flick. What is most surprising in all of this, to be honest, is the fast pace at which events are unfolding. Last season had a couple of very strange side-quest episodes, including the ridiculous “Utopia,” and I’m hoping we don’t get anything like that this time around. At the same time, oh-god-please-nothing-as-godawful-as-“Utopia” is a pretty low bar to clear. I’d much rather see the show sort out its pacing problems and be positively good instead of just not terrible.
I still hate the wraith-vision shots. They’re cheap and lazy and don’t actually work to build up tension or anticipation.
I love that bisexuality is treated so nonchalantly in this show. That said, I worry that same-sex relationships aren’t treated with the same seriousness and legitimacy as straight ones.
After the clinical, impersonal sterility of last week’s bleakly dull episode, “Choose Your Pain” is a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the great potential this show possesses. The grimdark elements are still firmly and problematically in place, but at the core of “Choose Your Pain” is a glimmer of unironic optimism that is wholly Star Trek and that has been largely absent from the series so far. At five episodes into a 15-episode season, Discovery is, rather frustratingly, still establishing its identity, but it felt much surer of itself this week than last. Though it’s not entirely without problems, it’s an altogether better-constructed episode with a more compelling and complete story than either of the last two episodes, and it certainly works to help regain some of the momentum lost since the two-part premiere.
The episode begins with a meeting between Captain Lorca and his bosses at Starfleet, who are taking the Discovery out of action for the time being. Though we haven’t seen but the one major mission so far, apparently the ship has already made a name for itself, jumping all over the place to engage the Klingons and defend Federation space, and the higher-ups are concerned that the Klingons might try to capture the ship or figure out its technology. Lorca isn’t happy about having to take this step back from active duty, but there’s no hint of what he might do next because before, he even makes it back to the ship from his meeting, his shuttle is captured by Klingons and he’s promptly tossed into Klingon prison where he meets blatant fan service character Harry Mudd (a great use of Rainn Wilson’s talents) and Lieutenant Ash Tyler, a Starfleet officer captured at the Battle of the Binary Stars who has survived for eight months being raped by the Klingon woman who commands the ship. It’s a weird, excessively dark set-up, and much of what happens on the Klingon ship after Lorca’s arrival is nonsensical.
Harry Mudd is played with less disreputable rakish charm and more genuine pathos and anger at what he perceives as Starfleet’s elitism and lack of care for the common people, and this is a genuinely interesting idea that doesn’t go anywhere. We get some backstory for Lorca, who, it turns out, was famously (or famously enough that Mudd recognized his name) the single survivor when the ship he previously commanded was lost early in the war. The twist here is that Lorca destroyed the ship and its crew himself, to prevent them from being captured and tortured by Klingons, which makes it very weird later in the episode when Lorca bonds with Lieutenant Tyler and the two of them leave Mudd behind while they fight their way off the Klingon ship. Lorca knows exactly what fate he’s leaving Mudd to, and it’s hard to see Lorca or Tyler as sympathetic characters when they are willing to do something so unconscionable for petty revenge.
My frustration with this storyline is exacerbated by the fact that this unlikely escape happens too easily; not only are Lorca and Tyler able to overpower their guards with a simple ruse, but they are able to commandeer a small, two-person fighting ship with such minimal trouble that it happens entirely offscreen. By the time they are found by the Discovery, however, they’ve got four or five more small fighters chasing them, which means that there are personnel to fill them and that those personnel were able to launch their ships quickly enough that they are right on top of Lorca and Tyler. This points to a relatively large crew on the main Klingon ship, but they only encountered their two guards, a couple other Klingons in the hallways, and the Klingon captain herself. It’s a level of silly, hand-waving whiz-bang storytelling that depends on its audience failing to think even the least bit critically about the basic mechanics of how the story is supposed to unfold, and I hate it.
Meanwhile, on the Discovery, we get a more Saru-focused storyline. In Lorca’s absence, Saru is acting captain, and the Discovery is the only ship with the capabilities needed to locate and rescue Lorca once he’s captured, so the burden of managing this task is on Saru’s shoulders. It’s a time for Saru, potentially, to shine in a leadership position, but he’s suffering from a lack of confidence and comparing himself to other successful captains as he tries to ascertain whether he’s doing a good job. Complicating matters for Saru is Burnham’s report that the spore drive is depleting their tardigrade navigator to such a degree that it may jeopardize their continued ability to travel. Saru won’t hear of suspending use of the spore drive, however, even when Burnham’s theory about the tardigrade is supported by Lieutenant Stamets and Dr. Colber. Burnham is banished to her quarters, perennially doomed to Cassandra status, which effectively cuts her out of the story for much of the episode’s second half, during which time the ship’s final jump using the tardigrade practically kills the poor creature. Even that (with the added likelihood that the tardigrade is sentient, to boot) isn’t enough to sway Saru away from wringing every last drop of life from the creature if they need to in order to accomplish their mission.
Frankly, it’s not a great look for the first officer, for all that it’s a humanizing and compelling story, and once again Burnham is proven correct by the end of the episode, even as she’s castigated in the narrative for her high-handed methods. It’s deeply frustrating to watch her be right, over and over again, but also being constrained by a hierarchical system that punishes her for stepping out of line. It was tolerable enough when she was in trouble for mutiny; that’s a major offense, and her actions had severe consequences. But it’s starting to feel like Burnham is right about something new every week, only to have her every action and motive distrusted and second-guessed and criticized. Saru confining her to quarters this week was especially upsetting as it meant that Burnham wasn’t able to help implement her own solutions to their problem; Stamets takes the risk of injecting himself with tardigrade DNA so he can navigate the ship. Sure, he’ll almost certainly have to deal with consequences at some point for violating Earth’s anti-eugenics laws, but he also gets much of the credit for saving the day.
Burnham, on the other hand, gets to clean up the mess, of both the tardigrade, who has gone into a deep hibernation, and of Saru’s feelings—it turns out he’s angry and jealous and resentful towards Burnham for robbing him of his chance to study under Captain Georgiou. I’m very interested in the ways in which Burnham’s story is about how she chafes in the strictly hierarchical structures of Starfleet, and I think there is plenty of potentially useful commentary that could be made on the Starfleet ideal and the Trek vision of the future in general, but I’m not entirely confident that this show has the capability of examining those things in the way they deserve. There are glimmers of insight every now and then, and there’s interesting set-up for these big ideas—for example, Saru’s clear disdain for Lorca, which takes on a new depth of meaning when set against his obvious love and respect for Georgiou—but there’s not much payoff so far. Still, the Star Trek optimism shines through in spite of itself, in moments like the Burnham’s revival of the tardigrade or in her ability to bury the hatchet with Saru.
My major takeaway from this episode is that the people behind this show still aren’t certain what they want the show to be. At times, it’s as if they envision it as the unholy love child of Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica, but at others it’s Star Trek through and through. I’m just not sure if all those different stylistic and philosophical parts are ever going to make a coherent story.
I want to know more about Harry Mudd’s little scorpion friend.
Lorca’s vision problems are seeded at the beginning of the episode, there’s a reminder when he’s captured and drops the injector he uses for his medicine, and the Klingon captain tortures him by shining bright lights in his face, but there’s no actual payoff? The bright light torture is obviously uncomfortable, but it doesn’t even do any serious temporary damage that would hinder Lorca’s escape or force him to make a decision about getting proper medical care for his condition.
Cadet Tilly: “I love feeling feelings!” (I loved the scene with Tilly and Burnham having lunch together, which is exactly the sort of slice-of-life stuff I’ve been missing so far on this show.)
Also Cadet Tilly: “That’s so fucking cool!” (On the one hand, I appreciate the sentiment; on the other hand, it’s very weird to hear the f-bomb on Star Trek, which in my day was a family show.)
The final scene with Stamets and Colber was nice, both confirming the characters’ relationship and providing more of the domesticity I love in Trek and that provides reasons to care about the characters.
So… Burnham and Tilly are the only major female characters at this point, but I guess good job for not killing off any more women of color this week?
Speaking of two ways, looks like we’re getting some Mirror Universe funtimes soon!
Autumn continues apace, though the weather here in Cincinnati has still been positively summery most of the week. Leaves are falling, though they haven’t changed color much; we never do get especially spectacular fall colors here, but they are usually prettier than this. It’s slightly disappointing, especially after this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. Still, it’s not awful.
I’ve been working on getting back into the healthful routines that were working for me so well back before I broke my foot a couple years ago, which means calorie counting (still a work in progress), cardio, walking and daily Duolingo practice (I’m up to 46% fluent in German now!). I’m doing a terrible job of quitting energy drinks, but I’m getting there, and I did bake like twelve dozen cookies (five spice snickerdoodles and chocolate chip, yum!) yesterday, which is not healthy, but the fact that I have the energy for baking is kind of a good sign. Huzzah for mild-to-moderate lessening of my depression!
This week, I reviewed the excellent Laksa Media anthology, Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction & Fantasy. I also continued my coverage of Star Trek: Discovery, which sadly took a turn for the worse, and wrote about the first episode of the new season of The Shannara Chronicles, which was surprisingly decent. It wasn’t as much as I’d hoped to write, but it was better than last week. The new routine, even if I’m not sticking to it perfectly, is already helping my mood and energy levels immensely, and while I didn’t write as much as I wanted to this week, the writing itself went easier and faster than it has in a while.
If you’re looking to read more diversely and don’t know where to start, there’s a new subscription box you should check out: Afrofuture Books.
The next installment of Sarah Gailey’s The Fisher of Bones is up at Fireside: “Discovery.”
Where the Stars Rise is a wonderfully diverse collection of Asian science fiction and fantasy that deserves to be on the shelves of anyone serious about being well-read in the genre. Like all good anthologies, there’s something here for almost anyone, while at the same time the collection has a distinctive character that’s all its own. A running theme of the collection is identity, with story after story examining ideas about racial, cultural and personal identity. Experiences of racist oppression figure largely in these stories, but so do experiences of parenthood, disability, trauma, loss and grieving, aging, and displacement or immigration. With a near-even split between science fiction and fantasy and a wide range of subgenres included, this is a remarkably well-rounded anthology that I found had a good mix of well-known and new-to-me short fiction writers. That a portion of the proceeds from its sales goes to benefit Kids Help Phone, Canada’s only 24/7 free and anonymous counseling and information service for young people, is an extra enticement to support the title (and Laksa Media more generally—all of their titles support charity).
The book starts with “Spirit of Wine” by Tony Pi, a cleverly droll fable set in Song Dynasty China. It’s the first of several historical (or historical-ish, anyway) stories with a sort of folkloric sensibility, though the rest appear later in the collection. Pamela Q. Fernandes’s “Joseon Fringe,” Minsoo Kang’s “Wintry Hearts of Those Who Rise,” Deepak Bharathan’s poetically lovely “Udātta Śloka,” and Anne Carry Abad’s trickster myth “Moon Halves” round out the stories in this group. As a huge fan of folk-inspired fantasy of all kinds, I was thrilled to see a nice assortment of stories of this type in the anthology.
Other stories struggle with the weight of history and work on processing some of the ugliness of diasporic experiences. “Rose’s Arm” by Calvin D. Jim deals with, among other things, anti-Japanese racism in a steampunk-ish alternate 1928 Vancouver. In Miki Dare’s “A Star is Born,” an elderly Japanese woman recalls her experiences in an internment camp in the 1940s. “Vanilla Rice” by Angela Yuriko Smith examines the existential threat that white supremacy poses to individuals. In “Meridian,” Karin Lowachee offers a futuristic take on the trauma of failed adoptions, an issue that is unfortunately timely. E.C. Myers’ “The Observer Effect” is a superhero story that discusses whitewashing and the importance of representation.
I adored Fonda Lee’s story, “Old Souls,” an acerbically intelligent story involving reincarnation and an ancient grudge. It’s probably the most commercial and polished story in the collection, and it’s got me hyped for Fonda Lee’s upcoming book, Jade City, which is her first novel for adults. “Weaving Silk” by Amanda Sun is probably my favorite story in Where the Stars Rise; I loved the way Sun turned her central conceit over and over, working it throughout her post-apocalyptic story like a bright thread. S.B. Divya’s “Looking Up” was another favorite. I’d read Divya’s novella, Runtime, and enjoyed it last year, and “Looking Up” is another showcase for her understanding of complex familial relationships but in a very different setting from Runtime’s.
The final story of the collection is “The Orphans of Nilaveli” by Naru Dames Sundar, and it’s as sharp and incisive a piece of flash fiction as I’ve seen this year. The story of a future Sri Lanka where people use programmable technology to blind themselves to others that they don’t want to see is both deeply specific and broadly applicable to the ways in which so many people already pretend that inconvenient Others don’t exist. It’s a short but powerful story that is the one I would choose if asked to name a single story from this anthology that everyone ought to read.
I wasn’t sure about The Shannara Chronicles’ move from MTV to Spike, but I’m somewhat encouraged after seeing last night’s second season premiere, which didn’t do any of the things that I was worried about but did make some general improvements to the show while functioning as a sort of soft reboot of the series. If you didn’t catch the first season of the show on MTV, “Druid” is a great place to start. It’s exposition-heavy at times, with recapping last season and introducing a new crop of characters added to the main cast, but most of this is deftly done enough that it doesn’t distract overly much from the story, which this season is jumping right into. For the time being, there are several disparate storylines without much overlap, but it seems safe to expect that at least a couple of them will be intersecting soon. All in all, it’s a promising start to the season and an enjoyable hour of television that shows a level of self-assurance and comfort with its material that wasn’t present in the first season of the show.
Eretria & Lyria
Season One ended with Eretria kidnapped and Wil leaving Arborlon in pursuit of her, but instead of following that story the new season skips right past it except for a brief scene in which Eretria is brought to a guy she knows, Cogline, who gives her the option of staying with him or going if she chooses. Though she is certain her friends will be looking for her, she stays, and there’s an immediate time jump to one year later even before the opening credits start.
A year after parting from Wil and Amberle finds Eretria seemingly happily living with Cogline and his people in the ruins of San Francisco, where she helps with scavenging for old technology and has even found a new girlfriend, Lyria, who has a mysterious backstory of her own. One of my concerns about the show’s move to Spike was that Eretria’s sexuality and this relationship would be played up to titillate a presumed male audience, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. Eretria and Lyria are affectionate with each other and even share a sweet kiss, but so far there’s been none of the half-expected camera leering or hypersexualization of the relationship in general. Instead, there’s just the strong sense that the relationship between the two women is still relatively new and that they are both maintaining some secrecy about their pasts. Lyria doesn’t make an extremely strong impression, and I’m not sold on her costume (what even is that top?), but it’s still early, and what I do like is the easy chemistry and the uncomplicated (so far) relationship between Lyria and Eretria.
There’s a somewhat gratuitous action scene right at the start, when Eretria fights off a group of about a half dozen trolls who come upon the scavengers outside the city. However, it’s nicely executed enough that I can’t complain too much about it, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it provides the opportunity—when Eretria falls through a hole in the desiccated Golden Gate Bridge and into the water below—for Eretria to have a vision of Amberle, who warns her that the world is in danger and tells her to find Wil. Before she goes to find Wil, though, Eretria spends some time weighing her options. She’s got a comfortable life with Cogline, who it turns out was a friend of Eretria’s mother’s, but she can’t stop thinking about her lost friends. In the end, it’s Lyria who pushes Eretria to go when Lyria spills the truth that Cogline has been hiding things from Eretria all along: while Eretria thought all these months that Wil hadn’t come looking for her at all, it turns out that he did but was turned away by Cogline. Cogline claims that he was only protecting Eretria, but by the end of the hour Eretria and Lyria have left the city to head to Arborlon—only to be promptly captured by Rovers.
Bandon & Allanon
Bandon has gone full-on evil and is busy making mord wraiths (imagine if Darth Maul had a baby with a Ringwraith) and tryin
g to resurrect the Warlock Lord at the most amazingly unsubtle EVIL SKULL CASTLE I’ve ever seen on television. It’s kind of absurd, but I love a show that can own that sort of absurdity. The early Shannara books were always highly derivative of Tolkien, and the first season of the show made some missteps in trying to differentiate itself from that history (I’m looking at you, “Utopia.”), but this season seems to be more interested in owning it. The post-apocalyptic touches are still there in the costumes and some of the wide shots of landscapes, but Bandon’s skull fortress is pure 1980s, Tolkien-inspired fantasy, and it’s great. The only thing greater is the prop they use for the Warlock Lord’s mummified heart, which is maybe my favorite TV prop in years. It’s fantastic.
Though Allanon crashes Bandon’s wraith creation and Warlock summoning party, he’s unable to prevent the younger man from creating the wraiths. They argue—with Bandon accusing Allanon of hypocrisy—and then fight—a nicely executed sword fight that nonetheless struggles to feel truly consequential in the first episode of a fresh season—and Bandon defeats his former mentor, leaving Allanon out in the cold (literally) and helplessly watching while Bandon sends his mord wraiths after Wil. Overall, these scenes setting up Bandon’s villainy are well-done, though his motivations are a little shaky. If you watched season one, you know Bandon was corrupted by the Dagda Mor, and there was always an element of choice in that; Bandon was corrupted because he was corruptible. It’s unclear just how the show is going to be exploring that idea. Bandon seems to blame Allanon for all of his problems, but even if it was Allanon’s fault that Bandon was exposed to the Dagda Mor in the first place, it isn’t reasonable that Allanon should be held accountable for all of Bandon’s actions since, especially now that Bandon is no longer possessed.
I’m also curious to see how the show handles what happened with Bandon’s season one love interest Catania. Bandon brings her up here in his railing against Allanon, blaming the druid for Catania’s rejection of Bandon, but what actually happened in season one was that Bandon, possibly under the influence of the Dagda Mor, tried to rape Catania, and she’s terrified of him. While we do get a glimpse of Catania in an Arborlon scene this week, we don’t get any of her perspective on this issue. Considering how poorly this show has treated rape in the past, I’m not sure I trust them to handle it well now. If nothing else, the usefulness of Bandon and Allanon fighting about it is pretty limited without any input from Catania herself. It’s a weird, perfunctory and muddled treatment of the topic that I don’t think shows a great understanding of last season’s events and suggests that some of those events could be retconned or repurposed in service of either Allanon’s or Bandon’s character development without taking into account Catania and what her take on the whole matter might be.
Ander Elessedil & General Riga
In Arborlon, King Ander is working hard to rebuild his kingdom after it was wrecked by demon hordes last year, but it’s tough going with little support from any of his neighbors, who are all at least a little bit happy to see the elves brought low like this. At the same time, a new reactionary movement has sprung up among his own people: The Crimson, led by one General Riga, blame magic for the demon invasion and are terrorizing and murdering anyone suspected of using magic, with a special hatred for those of the Shannara bloodline. To that end, Riga has put a bounty on Wil’s head and is exploring other avenues of hunting him as well, believing that getting rid of the last of the Shannara’s is a way to ensure the safety of the elven kingdom. By the end of the episode, Riga still hasn’t found Wil, but he has tracked down Wil’s uncle, Flick, and burned the town of Shady Vale to the ground trying to get Flick to tell him where Wil is.
Wil & Mareth
Wil finally made it to Storlock, where he’s been training with the gnomes to become a healer, but it’s not going very well for him. He’s still missing Amberle and experiencing something like PTSD symptoms that leaves him with shaking hands that are interfering with his ability to progress in his studies. He’s down to his last chance to succeed as a healer, but he’s got bigger problems, what with the bounty on his head and the posse of mord wraiths coming after him and all. He’s also got a new acquaintance, Mareth, who helps Wil fight off some bounty hunters. Mareth has her own agenda and her own magic, though. She needs will to help her find Allanon because, she says, the druid is her father.
The Wil sections of the episode weren’t terrible, but there isn’t a lot going on here yet. Austin Butler’s acting has improved, and I like his new haircut. Wil’s grief and longing for Amberle could have been conveyed more economically and less creepily; his use of the Elfstones to summon a vision of her so he could try to make out with it was, frankly, offputting. The fight scene with the bounty hunters in the bar was good, and it’s highly encouraging to see the action scenes in the show being of such consistently high quality. I think I love Mareth, who seems smart and tough and funny, though I also am a little skeptical; last season, Eretria and Amberle were often nice foils for each other, and I’d like to see that sort of diversity of female leads’ personalities to continue. That said, I can do without the love triangle dynamic that much of last season had, and I’m really rooting for Eretria and Lyria, which takes some pressure off Mareth to be so vastly different from the other woman in Wil’s life. We’ll see. It’s early yet.
I’m not even kidding about how much I love the mummified Warlock Lord heart prop. I was delighted when it started pumping blood all over.
Could have done without the mord wraith vision effect in a couple of late shots. I get what they were going for, but without Evil Dead’s panache it just felt silly.
After a strong two-part premiere and a decent transitional episode last week, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry” is a bit of a disappointment. After cramming a ton of set-up and plot into its first three episodes, what the show needs now is to establish a new normal and give the characters a reprieve from the constant barrage of Events! Happening! so the audience can get to know these people we’re supposed to care about. This is a needle that was successfully threaded in “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars,” where we were given a nice prologue and several flashbacks to establish Burnham’s character and her friendship with Captain Georgiou, and this gave weight to the events at the end of the second episode, setting up Burnham for a redemption arc over the rest of the series. Last week’s episode contrived to get Burnham onto the Discovery and introduced a new cast of characters, so the next logical step would be to show us more of how these characters interact with each other, what makes them tick, or even just how Burnham settles in to the normal rhythm of life on the ship. Instead, this episode features another crisis, but it struggles throughout to convey why any of these events should matter to the viewer.
One of the things that worried me most about this show was when I read, months ago, about the ways in which it was inspired and influenced by Game of Thrones. While the most optimistic interpretations of statements from the Star Trek: Discovery show runners to this effect could point to a more general aspiration to craft the show more in the fashion of HBO’s prestige programming, I was pretty certain from the favorably framed allusions to Thrones’ penchant for killing major characters that whatever lessons Discovery was taking from Game of Thrones were wrong ones. I was disappointed when Georgiou was killed off so early in the season, but it made sense if the show was going to be about Burnham and her redemption arc. T’kuvma’s death didn’t even feel like a main character death; it had already become clear that Voq was the main point of view character in the Klingons’ storyline. These deaths made sense in context and within the larger structure of the show, even if they weren’t entirely welcome. The optics of Georgiou’s death were especially bad considering how much the show leaned on marketing the mentorship relationship between Georgiou and Burnham in the lead-up to the series, but still. It made sense, from a storytelling standpoint.
Last week, there was a classic redshirt death on board the Glenn when Burnham, Lieutenant Stamets, Cadet Tilly and Commander Landry went to investigate what had cause the other ship to stop communications. It was a little darker than one might expect from Star Trek, but not terribly so, and the redshirt trope is a trope for a reason. It was fine. Meaningless, but fine. If nothing else, it was in keeping with the overall tone of the episode and the series so far. This week, however, it’s Commander Landry’s turn to shuffle off her mortal coil, and it’s the definition of gratuitous.
Burnham’s first official assignment on the Discovery isn’t with Stamets as expected. Instead, she’s taken down to Lorca’s little mad science lab where the creature from the Glenn is being kept and told to find a way to find out how it was so good at fighting and to “weaponize” the beast. To keep Burnham on task, Commander Landry is assigned to oversee the project, but she quickly loses patience with the lack of immediate results. Burnham’s initial examination of the creature suggests that it’s an herbivore, something akin to a tardigrade, that was only acting in self-defense, but Landry is impatient to find some aspect of it to exploit. To that end and against Burnham’s protests, she opens the cell and attacks the creature only to die horribly when it responds in kind. Lorca uses Landry’s death to exhort Burnham to hurry up and find some way to use the creature—so that Landry’s death won’t be “in vain”—but the truth is that the whole thing happens so quickly and Landry has been so poorly developed (and with only antagonistic character traits in this episode) that it’s impossible to care very much about her other than simply on the very basic level of not wanting her to die because she seemed like an important character.
There’s certainly no reason for Landry’s death to affect Burnham, and it doesn’t; Burnham continues to investigate the creature, dubbed “Ripper,” in her own way and finds out that its usefulness is not as a weapon but as a tool for using Stamets’ spores for travel. Ripper is how the scientists on the Glenn were planning to navigate using the spore drive, and Stamets is able to use the creature to get the Discovery to a crucial Federation outpost that is under attack by Klingons. The Discovery saves the day, but Burnham notices something disturbing: the device used to harness Ripper’s navigational powers seems to be hurting it. However, that’s an ethical dilemma for another episode because this one isn’t about to deal with anything so interesting or Trek-y.
In the end, it’s hard to see the point of Landry’s death here, and the pointlessness of her death makes the existence of the character at all highly questionable. If Landry was intended to be a foil for Burnham, as it seems she was, the perfunctory way in which she was disposed of kind of defeats the purpose. We didn’t get to know her well enough to feel much of anything about her on a personal level. In fact, I had to check IMDb for her name. Landry is never a threat to Burnham’s new position on the ship, and she never truly challenges or tests Burnham’s beliefs or values, only reinforces them. If the point of Landry’s death was to reinforce the value of Burnham’s methods to others on the ship, it doesn’t seem to have done that; Lorca, at least, is unaffected by the death, and no other characters seem to know or care about it since Landry isn’t mentioned again once her corpse is packed away. That Landry is the second woman of color to be violently killed in just four episodes only makes things worse. This show traded heavily on its diversity in marketing, but the systematic killing off of non-white characters is at odds with the picture they’ve tried to put forward of a diverse and inclusive series. It’s disappointing, to say the least.
On a more general note, the show is suffering quite a bit from its overall surfeit of plot. There’s still a lot going on, and all of it is supposed to feel urgent, which makes none of it feel very urgent. The worst part is that there’s no time being spent on giving us any real sense of who any of these characters are or how they exist together. Potentially interesting relationships are suggested or teased, such as the antagonism between Landry and Burnham or Burnham’s complicated situation with Saru or the budding friendship between Burnham and Tilly. Even Stamets’ sense of awe and wonder when he sees the tardigrade monster with the spores has the potential to be an interesting glimpse into the inner workings of the character. But over and over again, revealing moments are cut off before they can reveal much of anything and character development is rushed past or ignored altogether in favor of showing us a thing happening. The problem is that we need character development and relationships in order to care about the constant crises the crew is finding themselves in.
There’s a reason why so many episodes of other Treks featured the crew during their leisure time. There’s nothing like a malfunctioning holodeck or a trip to a resort planet to reveal something new about the characters and force them to work together to solve a problem. So far, that sense of unity and cohesiveness of purpose is decidedly missing from Discovery.
The reveal that Voq and the Klingons ate Captain Georgiou’s body was another bit of absolutely gratuitous grimness.
I do like L’Rell, and I’m looking forward to seeing Klingon matriarchs.
Why did it take so long for Georgiou’s bequest to make it to Burnham? Because it sure seems like a case of naked emotional manipulation on the part of the show’s writers, who really want us to feel something about it. All I can think of is that I would still much rather be watching the story of Burnham and Georgiou’s years together on the Shenzhou.
Well, this has been a hell of a week, and I haven’t had the energy or emotional fortitude to do pretty much anything other than play Destiny 2. Yesterday was my birthday, which was as uneventful a day as I could hope for in this garbage year. I drank a bottle of cheap wine. It helped, a little.
The good news is that I’m feeling better, enough so that my lack of productivity today was part of a purposeful day of recharging rather than another day of devastatingly crippling depression and anxiety and shame-spiraling. I’m not making promises about the coming week, as I’m just gonna take things one day at a time for a little while, but I will say that I’ve got a to-do list ready for tomorrow and I’m going to get a good night’s rest tonight, so I’m cautiously optimistic.
The first week of October and my birthday are basically when I really feel like it’s fall, and that means fall recipes. This year, I’m aiming to eat as much pumpkin and squash as I can, and here’s where I’m starting:
In “Context is for Kings,” Star Trek: Discovery does several interesting things, but some of the fundamental problems with the show’s premise and execution are on display as well. My appraisal of last week’s two-part series premiere as a prologue to the actual series is confirmed; though there are some familiar faces on the Discovery, there’s a significant difference in tone, content and style from last week. This is a much more Trek-y episode, structurally, than either of the previous two, which should please longtime fans of the franchise, but the strong shift from last week’s introduction and the necessity of reintroducing Burnham’s new circumstances, introducing some all-new characters, and setting up the rest of the season-long arc makes this hour feel like a pilot episode all over again. It’s still, overall, promising, but it’s also not quite as cohesive or compelling as the first two episodes were.
The episode picks up six months after Michael Burnham has been sentenced to life imprisonment, and she’s already infamous. The conflict with the Klingons has continued in the intervening six months, and the Federation and Starfleet are apparently fully focused on the war effort. During what appears to be a routine prisoner transfer, the shuttle Burnham is on with three other prisoners runs into some trouble and is picked up in the tractor beam of a brand new, state-of-the-art science ship, the Discovery under the command of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs). When Burnham is basically conscripted into service on the Discovery, ostensibly until the shuttle she arrived on is repaired, she finds that her past has followed her here. She’s reunited with Saru (now Lorca’s First Officer) and another officer she served with on the Shenzhou, and things are awkward, but pretty much all reactions to Burnham range between distrust and hostility; she’s widely blamed for the war with the Klingons and the thousands of casualties at the Battle at the Binary Stars.
Sensibly, Burnham’s strategy is to keep her head down. It’s obvious that she’s still consumed with guilt and grief over the consequences of her decisions and actions on the Shenzhou, and she insists several times to Captain Lorca and to Saru that she wants to return to her imprisonment where she belongs. It’s also obvious that no one Burnham meets is willing to forget the Shenzhou either; even Burnham’s roommate, the sunny-dispositioned Cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) turns cold at the mention of Michael’s name. All the same, Burnham finds herself intrigued by the work being done aboard the Discovery. It’s the largest science ship ever built, with space to have hundreds of projects working at once, all bent on discovering, inventing or refining some new technology that will help the Federation win out against the Klingons. Burnham is assigned to work under Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who is doing some kind of probably-mad-science experiment involving fungus and quantum mechanics.
Stamets is working in tandem with a close colleague on another ship, the Glenn, but whatever they are up to goes very wrong, knocking out communications with the Glenn and sending Stamets with an away team—including Burnham—to find out what went wrong. When they arrive on the Glenn, they find the place full of mangled corpses that have been twisted and torn apart by something that looks like a giant tardigrade, which they then have to escape from. It’s Burnham’s quick thinking and knowledge of ship architecture that lets her distract the monster so Stamets and the others can get back to their shuttle, but what I loved best about this sequence was Burnham reciting lines from Lewis Carroll to herself as she crawls through the ship. It’s a detail that works nicely on its own as an indicator of an interesting whimsical streak in an otherwise highly logical and grounded-seeming character, but it’s also a neat Easter egg for serious Trek fans, who may remember that Amanda Grayson was a fan of Lewis Carroll in the animated series.
In any case, the team makes it back to the Discovery, minus one redshirt (sadly difficult to identify with these new uniforms); the Glenn is destroyed; and Burnham has earned herself the offer of a permanent (presumably) place on the ship. She’s skeptical of Lorca’s motives, however. Stamets, an academic, called the captain a warmonger, and Burnham has drawn her own conclusions about what the Discovery’s mission may be. For all that her actions helped to foment this war with the Klingons, Burnham still believes in the more peaceful mission of Starfleet and doesn’t want to help develop weapons, especially when she suspects that Lorca’s goals are somewhat outside the bounds of what would be strictly considered legal. He insists, however, that they aren’t working on a weapon but on a new method of near-instantaneous travel using the power of Stamets’ spores, and, in the end, Burnham is convinced. She’s fascinated by the work and hoping for a chance at redemption, and that’s enough to overcome her distrust of Lorca and his motives.
And she should be distrustful of Lorca. His “context is for kings” speech, in which he pontificates about the importance of knowing when and how to break rules is a giant red flag. Also, the creepy lab where he’s keeping that tardigrade monster doesn’t exactly seem like it’s totally on the up and up, either.
Lorca has a pet tribble on his desk.
It’s not clear so far exactly what Cadet Tilly’s “special needs” are supposed to be. While she specifically cites allergies and a tendency to snore, it also seems like we’re supposed to understand her as being on the autism spectrum. Her tics and social strangeness read as something more than simple nervousness. So far, she seems like a sensitive portrayal of an autistic character, and I like that she’s ambitious, intelligent and seems to be cool under pressure. She does well on the Glenn, anyway. I’ll be interested to see what more expert-on-autism viewers have to say about this portrayal of disability, though.
Saru is probably the second most interesting character on the show after Burnham. I loved his bowl of blueberries. I’m curious to find out what he was reacting to at the end of the episode when his danger-sensing frill thingies stood up. Was he reacting to the tardigrade being brought aboard or to Burnham not leaving?
Commander Landry is played by Rekha Sharma, who was the cylon Tory in Battlestar Galactica.
I despise Rent, so I thought I would hate Anthony Rapp as Stamets, but I kind of like him? The academic pressed to adapt his research for war is an interesting character through which to explore the tension between Starfleet’s ideals and the reality of their doubling as military forces.
I was really hopeful that we’d see more of Georgiou in flashbacks, but that wasn’t the case this week.
I’ve been pretty concerned for a few weeks that I was going to have a freak-out as I got closer to my 35th birthday on October 7, but so far I’m feeling okay about it. All things considered (and there are a lot of things to consider these days), it feels like it might not be a completely horrible year. Feeling optimistic-ish about the future, I’ve even updated my Amazon wishlist just in case anyone is interested in feeding my endless hunger for literary criticism and beautiful cookbooks.
In happy news this week, the Book Smugglers’ Level Up Kickstarter hit its first goal and is well on its way to some great stretch goals, including a new serialized story by JY Yang if they make it to $20,000.
Salik Shah explains why Mithila Review has closed submissions. Spoiler: the problem is lack of funding. It’s a great publication, and I highly recommend checking it out and supporting it via Patreon. $2.50/issue gets you a digital copy of each new one as its published, and Shah has said submissions will reopen when they hit their first funding goal of $250 per issue.