Picard (Season 1)

Picard (Season 1)

By: Kevin Jordan

Make it no.

A few weeks ago, we introduced our son to Star Trek by way of a pinball machine. The machine included audio dialogue clips from Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness and he was instantly curious to watch them. As of today, he has seen all of the so-called Kelvin trilogy (the three newest films), Star Trek II, III, and IV, and several episodes of the original series (including the original Khan episode). And he loves them.

My wife and I could not be prouder since we both love Star Trek. Well, some Star Trek, that is. We are both huge fans of The Next Generation and we will start in on those episodes and movies with our son after we watch Star Trek V and VI. However, we will not be encouraging him to watch any of the series that came after The Next Generation. While Deep Space Nine was watchable at times, Voyager was not and Enterprise almost made my eyes bleed (I couldn’t even finish the first episode it was so bad). Originally, Star Trek was envisioned by Gene Roddenberry as an idealistic and hopeful future of the human race where exploration, community, and knowledge drove people. Deep Space Nine started to change that (and Voyager and Enterprise slammed it home), focusing much more on the shittier traits of humans like war, greed, and genocide. Not coincidentally, Gene Roddenberry died two years before Deep Space Nine aired and thus morphed Star Trek into a pessimistic and cynical look at the human race.

It is not hyperbole to note that Enterprise all but killed the Star Trek franchise until J.J. Abrams resurrected it with Star Trek years later. While still somewhat dark, Abrams at least tried to reinject that hope and idealism back into the franchise. Unfortunately, CBS decided to create two new Star Trek series for television, Discovery and Picard. At first, I really wanted to check out Discovery, if for no other reason than it is Star Trek, but did not feel like subscribing to CBS All Access for a single show. Then, Picard came along and, being a huge TNG and Patrick Stewart fan (as well as CBS offering free trial access to their service), we jumped straight into Picard. You know what they say about looking before you leap? Make sure your parachute isn’t actually a knapsack.

I’d watch Patrick Stewart read the phonebo…walk the dog.

I should have known better than to put my hopes of a good science-fiction show on a network that is ninety-five percent crime procedurals and five percent continuing to beat the dead horse that was The Big Bang Theory (Young Sheldon). It also would have been informative to know that the writing credits include Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman. Their collective filmography ranges from Goldsman’s moving, Oscar-nominated A Beautiful Mind and Kurtzman’s excellent television show Fringe to a collection of crap that far outweighs the good, including Batman & Robin (Goldsman), 2017’s The Mummy (Kurtzman), and two Transformers sequels (Kurtzman and Goldsman). Of course, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing us to stay home, I still would have given Picard a chance knowing those two were behind it.

(SPOILER ALERT – I will be covering bits of all of the episodes throughout Picard, including the finale. You’re welcome.)

Picard begins eighteen years after the events of the last TNG film, Nemesis, in which we see Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) die. Jean-Luc Picard (Stewart) is a retired admiral, living out his final days tending to a French winery while having recurring dreams of Data. Meanwhile, in another place on Earth, Dahj (Isa Briones) is about to celebrate with her boyfriend her acceptance to a robotics university when a couple of mercenaries crash into her apartment, kill her boyfriend, throw a hood over her head, and question if she has been “activated.” This attack activates her – which apparently means she suddenly has amazing combat skills – she kills the mercenaries, then sees an image of Picard in her head. While not exactly having a Star Trek feel, this is at least an intriguing opening to the story.

Am I dreaming? No? Damn.

While Dahj makes her way to find Picard, we get a quick synopsis of the eighteen years we missed. Taking the Romulan supernova element from Abrams’ Star Trek, we learn Picard spearheaded an attempt to evacuate Romulus, but failed when a bunch of androids on Mars went rogue, destroying all the ships being made for the evacuation and killing thousands of people working there. This led to the Federation abandoning the rescue effort and banning synthetic life forms. Make sense? Of course not. Even after several episodes and more detailed flashbacks, my wife and I did not understand the connection between the Romulan evacuation and the android killing spree until I read a review pointing out that Mars was where they were building the evacuation fleet. The story only goes downhill from there, but it takes until episode two to start its plummet.

To be fair, the story was still intriguing through the end of the first episode. Picard concludes and informs Dahj that she is an android and that she contains a shred of Data’s essence in her. Then, Romulans kill Dahj by spitting acid on her. Okay, that part was just stupid, but it sets up the rest of the story. Picard also learned that Dahj had a twin sister, Soji. Setting aside the absurdity of lethal spit and the redundancy of Data’s essence as a motivating factor for Picard, the main story is Picard’s quest to rescue Soji before Romulans can kill her too. Except, he doesn’t know where she is. But we do – a captured Borg cube. No credit awarded for predicting CBS would go back to the Borg well.

That didn’t take long.

Much of episode two is composed of elements that represent the worst of most modern dramas. Soji starts up a relationship with a Romulan named Narek (Harry Treadaway), including a gratuitous bedroom scene. Narek is also clearly a villain (even before it is revealed during this episode), emphasized by Soji several times and episodes later, commenting that she still doesn’t know what his job is (or even last name). In other words, Soji is a slutty and clueless secret killer android. Yeah, this is definitely not Star Trek.

We also meet Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), head of Star Fleet security despite clearly being a Romulan. I think we’re supposed to believe Oh is Vulcan, but she shows emotion almost immediately and doesn’t look like a Vulcan. The episode concludes with Oh telling her subordinate, Narissa (Peyton List), to stay on mission and kill Soji. Lastly, we meet Raffi (Michelle Hurd), an ex-Starfleet officer and former friend of Picard who is arguably the worst character of any Star Trek film or show…and keep in mind this is a universe that featured Ferengis. Raffi vapes, lives in a trailer in the desert, is apparently sometimes a drug addict, is a conspiracy theorist, and is estranged from her family (including her son) due to her life falling apart. The worst thing about her though – she refers to Picard as “JL.” Just, no.

The only things missing are a car on blocks and toilet planter.

If you were keeping score in the last paragraph, we have a forced and rushed romance (the entire season takes place over the course of two weeks), a mole in the government, a drug addict with a broken family, and unnecessary acronyms. That is on top of secret killer androids, kick-fight scenes, a Federation that is okay with the extinction of other species, and the creation and destruction of an untold and presumably large population of androids in a five year period despite the Federation never being able to create androids. Two episodes in!!

Until the final two episodes, the story wanders all over the place after Picard assembles a ragtag crew and ship to search for Soji. In addition to Raffi, there is Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) – a synthetic robotics specialist (despite synthetic lifeforms being banned a decade earlier), Elnor (Evan Evagora) – a Romulan ninja (seriously, he even has a man bun) acting as Picard’s bodyguard, and Captain Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera) – captain and owner of the freighter Picard charters for the mission (Picard went to Starfleet first, but was told to go fuck himself in almost those exact words). Of all of these characters, Captain Rios is the only one who is even mildly interesting, but we eventually find out that he too is damaged goods (contrived as him falling in love with a Dahj/Soji android years earlier and having his heart broken). Can someone please tell me who and when it was decided that all characters in all shows must be damaged to be interesting?

Seriously?!!

The final two episodes end with the discovery of a hidden android colony led by Dr. Soong’s son, Alton (Brent Spiner). Yes, that Dr. Soong. Turns out there is another Soji/Dahj android (Sutra) and this one wants to open a portal to somewhere (don’t ask) to allow a murderous, ultra-advanced, million-year-old, synthetic, space octopus to come through and kill all biological life. It also turns out that Oh and Narissa are part of a secret and ancient Romulan sect that new about the space octopus through a prophecy warning them to kill all synthetic life forms lest those life forms try to call said octopus. The only question you should have at this point is if I had a little too much LDS in the sixties.

What started out as a fairly simple story with Star Trek trappings turned into the rejected plot of a Transformers sequel. And that is just the story. The production value of the show was not much better. Despite an over-abundance of lens flares, nothing could hide the abysmal acting from much of the cast, melodramatic music soaking every scene in soap-opera fashion, and terrible dialogue aimed at appealing to the morons of the CSI and NCIS crowd. It was bad enough having to endure Raffi calling Picard “JL” throughout the show, but among other terrible writing and dialogue, we also had to listen to former Borg members referred to as XBs. GTFO!

Trying to navigate this story is harder than flying through an asteroid field while sleeping.

It isn’t just the acronyms that reveal the writing to be terrible. So much of what we see is either purely there for melodrama or makes no sense in any context. In one example, Raffi tells Picard that she is only hitching a ride with him to get to another planet. Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, her son lives on that planet and she is planning on making amends with him and living there happily ever after. How does she initiate this? By surprising him in the waiting room of a hospital where his wife is giving birth. Seriously, she and the writers thought this was a good idea. Upon seeing her, her son snarls contempt and exposition at her and she slinks back to Rios’ ship and hides in the bathroom. The result of this scene is two characters who are entirely unsympathetic, and an audience left very uncomfortable.

In another example, after manipulating Soji for two weeks with his mysteriousness and his penis, Narek uses a magical Romulan dream-recalling ceremony to trick her into revealing the location of the android colony. Not the exact location mind you, but a vague description of a planet involving lightning. With that revelation, Narek traps her in a room and releases a poison gas to kill her. Naturally, she escapes almost immediately because the gas triggers her inner android. This scene would have worked if it was followed by Picard and crew racing the Romulans to the colony. Instead, it is followed by Narek following Picard and crew by tracking Dr. Jurati by way of a tracking device she was forced to swallow by Oh before she ever joined Picard’s crew. So, if Narissa and Narek could already track Picard, why bother with the whole surreptitious plan of manipulating Soji? Wouldn’t it have been far easier and less conspicuous to let Picard find Soji (maybe even help from the shadows) and just follow them?

What’s your name again?

Then, there are the million other things that don’t make sense. After banning synthetics, the colony was established in secret, so why were Soji and Dahj sent out at all? And why were they not aware they were androids? And why didn’t the colony have much better defenses? If the Romulan cult was afraid of the robopocalypse, why would they intentionally cause an army of androids to start killing everyone? For that matter, how were the killer androids stopped in the first place? And so many, many (many) more.

The failings of this show were made painfully clear by Stewart mustering every ounce of his considerable talent to carry the show while standing next to clearly inferior actors. The familiar Jean-Luc is there, but fails to blend into the dystopian context.

My wife, a huge TNG fan, was especially disappointed by the complete disregard for the Star Trek aspirational spirit. With Captain Picard at the helm, the crew of the Enterprise D challenged our nerd brains to imagine what humanity could be: benevolent cooperation, optimistic curiosity, and genuine care for other living beings. Instead, Picard throws it back in our face, shines a lens flare on it, and says “eat up this stupid contrivance, you brainless couch blobs.”

It’s good to see a real actor in full lighting again.

The only reason we stuck with this show to the end was for the occasional glimpses of light that were callbacks to TNG and a misplaced hope that the show would miraculously redeem itself. Besides Data being sprinkled into a couple of dream sequences, Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Troi (Marina Sirtis) feature prominently in episode 7 (and Riker again in the finale), as does Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), a former Borg from a couple of old TNG episodes. Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) is also featured fairly prominently, for those Voyager fans out there. When the scenes feature only the old characters, the show starts working again, if only because the actors seem not to have missed a beat from the old days (even Ryan). Besides that, there is no good news. There is zero chance we will expose our son to this travesty, let alone watch the already greenlit second season of what might be more appropriately named CSI: Spaceforce.

Rating: Ask for one hundred dollars back from CBS, even if you did the free trial. Calling it Star Trek doesn’t make it Star Trek.

The Kid Who Would be King

The Kid Who Would be King

By: Kevin Jordan

Another legend in the toilet.

Walking out of The Kid Who Would be King, I was mentally justifying it:  my kid loved it (his exact words), and it is a movie for kids, so that’s all that matters…right?  But parents have to sit through these movies too, so our opinions matter a little bit.  A very little bit, but some nonetheless.  What I said on my way out was “it was fine,” which was a very begrudging “fine” because there were a bunch of kids around me and I did not think their parents would appreciate my true thoughts: “it shit on my childhood and the legend of King Arthur.”

On the way home, my wife and I wondered if the movies we liked as kids were as crappy as this film.  Are we remembering Flight of the Navigator and The Wizard far more rosily than we should?  Even we know that Super Mario Brothers is the movie equivalent of underwear skid marks, so I would like to think it is more than just nostaglia.  I am also not saying kids should not enjoy these movies.  I enjoy some crappy movies every year, so who am I to begrudge them brainless entertainment?  But it is still worth pointing out that The Kid Who Would be King represents the lazy writing and bad filmmaking pervasive of most kid movies that are not made by Pixar or Dreamworks.  Look no further than the two recent toilet clogs called A Wrinkle in Time and Nutcracker and the Four Realms and you understand what I mean.

Did you wash your hands?

(SPOILERS, but only for kids.  Who are not reading this.)

The Kid Who Would be King starts out bad – with a speed reader’s version of the legend of King Arthur, presented in a cartoon format that looks like it jumped out of a Sandra Boynton book.  That is not a knock on Boynton, but a knock on the filmmakers for presuming the audience has the collective intelligence of three-year olds.  Opening narration is almost always useless and definitely lazy, but what makes it especially egregious in this film is that the entire rest of the movie beats you over the head with Arthurian legend anyway, including the main character literally reading aloud from a King Arthur book.

After that waste of time, the film introduces us to Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), the stereotypical pudgy kid with a nerdy friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) and two personal bullies, Lance and Kaye (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris, respectively).  Touching on one of my pet peeves, Alex gets in trouble for defending Bedders (who was actively being robbed by Lance and Kaye) by tackling Lance.  Immediately after serving detention (with the bullies), the bullies chase Alex into a construction site and nary a teacher witnesses this, despite the chase starting on the steps of the school.  I could rant about this for hours, but how about I just skip to the part where Alex wakes up after taking a fall in the construction site and pulls Excalibur from a chunk of concrete?

No points for guessing who is the bully.

He takes the sword home and shows it to Bedders and they have a laugh.  Meanwhile, the evil witch Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) wakes up in some random underground lair and resumes her centuries’ old plot to take over the world.  Or just Britain (this is never really clear).  To do that, she must have Excalibur because only the true king (or queen) possesses Excalibur.  Just one problem.  They tell us multiple times during the movie that Excalibur chooses its wielder.  So, Morgana can never wield Excalibur and she knows this.  Did I say this movie had lazy writing?  Any lazier and it would be in a coma.

We also get an arbitrary countdown, as all hero’s journey stories must.  In this film, Alex and his knights (Bedders and the bullies for some reason) have four days to defeat Morgana because there is a solar eclipse in four days.  Also, Morgana is rising because people have become bad enough to want Brexit, which returns her strength and the eclipse and stuff.  I am not making this up.  This film shows us news clips of Brexiteers and the divisiveness between people that caused it and now children have to buy and wear fake armor and fight a witch who can morph into a fire-breathing succubus-dragon.  All because of racism.  Oh wait, there is more.

Merlin shows up as a young man (Angus Imrie) to help guide and train Alex and friends, but he can only help them during the day.  Unfortunately, Morgana can only exercise her powers at night, so Merlin is pretty useless.  Then again, sometimes Merlin is old (Patrick Stewart) and can sometimes help at night.  Then again, again, Morgana can sometimes attack the kids during the day.  I call timeout!!!

Do not go in there. Whewwwwww!

Compounding the nonsense seems to be the goal of writer/director Joe Cornish, and he does not stop with the Merlin/Morgana contradictions.  The kids’ journey is filled with false quests like searching for a lost father (who turns out to be a drunk and whom they never find), going to an Arthurian castle where they are protected by magic only to leave said castle the same day, and travelling to the underworld to fight Morgana before she can rise even though they know (THEY KNOW!!) she has to come to them to get the sword.  And just to put the rancid cherry on top, Morgana continually mocks Alex for believing in myths even though she is the myth.  Is it too much to ask the lady of the lake to drown me in my giant soda?

So, yeah, I was not amused by this film.  To be fair, Imrie’s performance as young Merlin was a bright spot, and who doesn’t love Patrick Stewart?   But the rest of the cast was mediocre and the Alex wasn’t even a good Arthur-analogue.  A clever director would make Lance the main character – a bully who has to learn the virtues of knighthood and leadership – not Alex, who already believes the in the legend and does not have to grow by the end of his journey.  With Lance, a real statement about bullying could have been made, but instead this movie treats bullying like a childhood rite of passage, as all movies do.  But, when it comes down to it, my son loved watching kids fight enflamed skeletons on undead horses and that matters far more to studios than what a forty-year old man thinks.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back, but not your kid’s.

Logan

By: Kevin Jordan

Bloody hyperbole.

logan poster

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, you probably aren’t going to find more of a Wolverine homer than yours truly.  I inexplicably told you to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine twice and gushed about The Wolverine without mentioning how kind of terrible the Sliver Samurai was portrayed (though I stand by The Wolverine being an excellent movie).  So, when I tell you the hype for Logan is definitely overblown, know that it comes from someone who would consider buying a life-sized Wolverine statue if he wasn’t married and never wanted to have sex again.

It’s not that it wasn’t a good movie – it was, but something didn’t sit right with me after the movie was over.  I’ve had almost two weeks to digest this movie since the screening and I’m still not sure what it is about the movie that left me a little disappointed.  Perusing through a couple of the early reviews that are out there isn’t helping either.  Those reviews read like your typical film snob reviews – praising the technical aspects and performances without mentioning even a word about the plot of the movie.  And you know my priorities – plot, plot, characters, plot, technical stuff (sometimes).  What good is making a technically proficient film if that film doesn’t tell an equally proficient story?

(As usual, in order to discuss this movie and my mild disappointment, I must give SPOILERS.  Also, nearly every review and soundbite for this movie talks about it being a fitting end for Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, so the end is kind of already spoiled.)

Logan picks up Logan’s (Jackman) story at least twenty years from now, which can only be twenty years from the end of Days of Future Past.  Logan is scraping by as a limo driver, living in an abandoned factory on the other side of the Mexican border.  With his friend Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a mutant who can sense and track other mutants, Logan is also caring for a partially senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), keeping him locked up in a fallen water tower to protect the world from Charles’ seizure-caused psychic blasts.  Logan’s goal in life now is to save up enough money to buy a boat and go live on the ocean with Charles where they can both die in peace.  Oh, and they are the last three mutants on Earth, no new mutants have been born in twenty years, and Logan’s healing powers are fading.  That’s seriously the setup for this movie and, yes, I have a lot of questions.

logan looks terrible

When you’re healing factor gets a large denominator.

 

What happened to the rest of the mutants, especially the X-Men?  It’s only been twenty years.

Why is Logan’s healing factor failing?  Isn’t that kind of a contradiction in terms?

Wouldn’t Deadpool still be alive?

Isn’t it a weird creative choice that one of three remaining mutants has the power to detect other mutants?  Also, how did he survive whatever killed every other mutant?

Am I thinking way too hard about a superhero movie?

The answer to that last question would only be yes if critics out there weren’t literally calling Logan an early best picture nominee (seriously – Mark Hughes of Forbes said exactly that).

The actual plot of this movie is that a corporation called Transigen is making test-tube mutants and are trying to recover a bunch of child experiments who escaped Transigen’s facility.  Young Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen), with the help of a Transigen nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez), seek out Logan to help guide them to a safe haven in the Dakota area.   Always, the reluctant and angry hero, Logan rejects them at first, only to be threatened by Transigen’s lead henchman, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).  Seriously, Wolverine fights a guy named Donald.  Also, Donald has a Terminator hand (it literally looks like the one Miles Dyson kept in his vault at Cyberdyne in Terminator 2), as do many of his henchman.  When Laura, Logan, and the henchman (and Donald) collide, the hero’s journey kicks off as Laura, Logan, and Charles take off in Logan’s battered limo leaving a pile of bloody bodies behind them.

One of the themes this movie tries to explore is Logan relearning how to care about someone (Laura), except the movie goes out of its way to show us how much he already cares about Charles and Caliban, so it doesn’t really resonate in that way.  It’s really more like relearning why life is worth living, done by making Laura Logan’s “daughter.”  I use quotes because Laura was injected with Logan’s DNA and given the same adamantium treatment, though she has two claws per hand instead of three (and one per foot).  See what they did there?  Another theme is the aspect of loneliness, which goes along with that first theme and covers the idea of being the last mutants left on Earth.  The biggest problem with these themes is that the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too.  All the mutants are dead, except for all the mutants Transigen is creating.  Logan doesn’t care about other people except for the other people he cares about.  Logan has to learn to want live, but spends the entire movie explaining how he just wants to die.  Logan even has a special bullet to kill himself with even though he’s dying anyway.  Mmmmm….cake.

I love you man.

I love you man.

Speaking of dying, I spent the entire movie wondering what was wrong with Logan, which might explain why I had so many questions at the end of the film.  I really want to see this movie again to focus on what I might have missed because all I could think about was waiting for someone or something to explain why Wolverine’s healing factor was failing.  In what is the weakest part of the story, Transigen’s mutant experiment leader, Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), monologues for a while, including this throwaway line “I put something in the food and water to prevent the mutant gene from occurring.”  Well, that explains the no new mutant births, but doesn’t really explain existing mutant powers failing or why it doesn’t affect his new mutants.  I realize it can be explained away with more DNA words, but it’s very unsatisfying considering everyone would have had the same question on their brains as me prior to that reveal.  It’s also supremely unsatisfying that this movie recycled the Weapon X program storyline to justify a super-lethal ten-year old.

And this is before puberty.

And this is before puberty.

Perhaps the worst part of the plot is who Logan has to fight (twice) to save the kids.  Take a guess.  Nope, try again.  Nope, you’re not even close.  He fights himself.  No, really, he fights a clone of himself.  All growed up and everything.  I told you, cake and stuff.  For whatever reason, Transigen decided to inject children with mutant DNA they collected even though they can literally clone those very same mutants.  Of course, Transigen also decided to train little Laura into a killing machine, but forgot to train the rest of the kids they imbued with powers.  This is painfully showcased in the climax when all of the kids suddenly forget they have powers and simply run away from the henchman.  Even Laura runs, who earlier in the film took out a dozen heavily armed henchman (pun intended) all by herself.  Now you can see why those other critics decided not to talk about the plot.

The good news is that the technical aspects do make the movie much better than its plot, including bumping the movie to an R-rating, which should have happened at least three movies ago.  Logan’s claws finally draw blood, we get to hear him utter actual curse words instead of Sesame Street curse words, and even Charles gets to let the expletives fly, which you know is what he was thinking every time Logan walked into the room during the entire franchise.  The decision to go with a grittier palate rather than a glossy polished look made the R-rated stuff feel organic rather than forced.  And, yes, the performances from Jackman, Stewart, and Keen were top notch, including some great new depth to characters we’ve spent nine movies with.  Oh – and did I mention the blood?  If you thought Deadpool was bloody, Logan matches it in spades, as well it should.

Like science fiction movies, I will always cut a Wolverine movie some slack.  I’m not sure that Logan is better than The Wolverine, but I’m sure it’s not worse.  And if this really is Hugh Jackman’s last turn as Wolverine, I will be sad because Jackman never disappointed, but this is a good movie to end his run on, even if it’s not even close to a best picture nominee.  Truth be told, it never needed to be because it’s freaking Wolverine.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back because a clone of Wolverine was a little too close to evil Deadpool in the Origins movie.