Archive for May, 2011

Star Trek 2.26: Assignment: Earth

Monday, 30 May, 2011

Assignment: EarthAh, “Assignment: Earth” – the episode most famous as being a backdoor pilot for a new series that Gene Roddenberry was planning, to be called, oddly enough, Assignment: Earth. Only that series never got the go ahead, so we’re left with this as the only chronicle of the adventures of Gary Seven and his secretary Roberta Lincoln (barring some half-hearted comics and mentions in a few Trek novels, apparently).

The episode begins with the Enterprise in orbit about Earth – in 1968 thanks to a slingshot time travel manoeuvre (which seems to be second nature now after its discovery in “The Naked Time“. They’ve gone back to observe Earth in this “historically significant time period” for some ill-defined “historical mission“. Really, is this the sort of thing starships are assigned to do? They don’t have historians to do this, while Starfleet, I dunno… explores strange new worlds or protects the Federation from Klingons or something?

Anyway, while observing, Scotty intercepts a transporter beam from the mind-boggling distance of over 1000 light years away. A well-dressed man with a black cat materialises in the transporter room, introduces himself as Gary Seven, and explains he is a human being sent home to Earth from a distant planet of benevolent aliens on a mission to save humanity from its nuclear excesses. In a brief fight scene we see that Seven is immune to Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch, which makes Kirk suspicious. Kirk is rightly sceptical and dithers about whether to hold Seven prisoner or let him go. Seven quickly makes this a moot issue by escaping and beaming down to a groovy 1960s pad in New York, despite having a security guard posted right outside his cell. Fortunately for Seven, the guard stands with his back to the cell, allowing Seven to use an electronic gadget that they should have found when they frisked him – unless of course the security on board the Enterprise is so lax that they let prisoners keep all their gadgets and sit in cells with nobody actually watching them…

Seven activates an ultra-modern computer system in the pad. You can tell it’s ultra-modern because it has voice command, not because it’s small – in fact it almost fills an entire room with consoles and flashing lights. The computer reports that Agents 201 and 347, who he is checking up on, apparently died in a car crash on their way to preventing an American orbital nuclear platform launch. Apparently in 1968 everybody had a bunch of orbiting nuclear warheads and World War III was only averted by a balance of terror in space. While determining this, the deceased agents’ secretary, one Roberta Lincoln, arrives and is boggled at Seven’s displays of technological wizardry. He tells her he works for the CIA, then runs off to sabotage the rocket launch. Spock and Kirk meanwhile have beamed down and found him, and race to follow.

Seven fiddles with the rocket while Kirk and Spock are captured by security guards and detained. Kirk ponders the situation, still not sure if Seven needs to succeed or be thwarted in order for history to be preserved. He says, “I’ve never felt so helpless,” – which fits nicely because the plot is really about Gary Seven. The rocket takes off, Scotty beams Spock and Kirk to Seven’s groovy pad, and there’s a showdown between them as Roberta manages to do what Spock couldn’t and knocks Seven out by whacking him on the head with a briefcase. Kirk now controls the computer, but must decide whether or not to trust Seven and self-detonate the rocket, or allow it to crash. Spock tells him there is no data to make a decision, so it cannot be made logically, and Kirk should trust his human intuition. He does so, trusting Gary, and the rocket is blown up before it can start World War III. Fortunately, Spock later confirms this is what was supposed to have happened all along.

In the denouement, Roberta sees Gary’s cat as a slinky woman and inquires jealously, but when she looks back it’s just a cat again. Kirk and Spock leave, assuring Roberta (and the audience) that they will have more memorable adventures. Of which we never get to see any, since the pilot was never picked up. It’s actually not a bad story, and makes a decent episode… of Assignment: Earth. It’s not a great episode of Star Trek, though, because Kirk and Spock never really do anything. As such, it sticks out a bit and fits oddly within the series.

Tropes: Poorly Disguised Pilot, Dolled Up Installment, Twenty Minutes Into The Future, Excellent Adventure, You Are Number Six, Ultraterrestrials, Big Applesauce, Force Field Door, Magic Tool, Sword Of Damocles, Cool Gate, Mistaken For Spies, Time Travellers Are Spies, Self-Destruct Mechanism, You Already Changed The Past.
Body count: Agent 201 and Agent 347, killed in a car accident off-screen.

Star Trek 2.25: Bread and Circuses

Tuesday, 24 May, 2011

Bread and CircusesBread and Circuses” is another famous episode along the lines of “Patterns of Force”, a.k.a. “the Nazi episode”. This one is “the Roman episode”, complete with togas, legionaries, slavery, and gladiatorial combats.

The Enterprise stumbles across a drifting ship near the imaginatively named planet of 892-IV. Looking for survivors, Uhura picks up signals from a native civilisation, using a primitive communication system “once called video”. This shows a Roman-styled gladiatorial fight as part of a newscast, mentioning that a barbarian named William Harris was killed in the arena. This is the name of one of the missing crew of the drifting vessel, so Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to investigate. They find a civilisation based on the Roman Empire, but with 20th century level technology. Kirk refers to Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development to explain this. The parallel is so close, they even speak colloquial 20th century English.

There is a series of misadventures as the trio are captured by a resistance group of escaped slaves, who profess a philosophy of peace and worship of the Sun. Kirk learns that the First Citizen of the Empire is named Merikus, eerily similar to Captain Merik of the abandoned ship. He asks for the slaves’ help to talk to Merikus and find out what has happened. The Prime Directive is quoted. Escaped gladiator Flavius Maximus, at first sceptical of them, helps them to find Merikus.

They all get captured and forced to fight in the arena, Spock and McCoy against Flavius and an unnamed gladiator. This gives a sterling opportunity for Spock and McCoy to engage in friendly but intense antagonistic banter as they flail ineffectively with their cardboard swords. Spock uses his Vulcan nerve pinch to win and they are thrown back in cells. Kirk, meanwhile, is wooed by the Proconsul Claudius Marcus, who Merik has informed about the true origins of himself and Kirk. Claudius wants the Enterprise crew to beam down to fight in the games. When Kirk refuses, Claudius leaves him alone with his slave girl Drusilla, in a revealing silver outfit. Back in their cells, McCoy tells Spock he is “worried about Jim too,” followed by a cut to Kirk kissing Drusilla, and then a James-Bond-dissolve to Kirk waking up on a bed.

Despite this, Kirk refuses Claudius’s demand again, and Claudius orders him executed live on TV. Meanwhile, Scotty, on board the Enterprise, chooses this exact moment to disrupt the city’s power supply from orbit, resulting in chaos. Flavius intervenes to save Kirk and is shot for his trouble. Out of the blue and for some unexplained reason, Merik then radios the Enterprise and instructs them to beam up three people, then tosses the communicator to Kirk as Claudius stabs him. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy escape as guards fire machine guns at their fading bodies. Back on board the Enterprise, Spock is mystified by why the slaves worship the Sun, as there were no Sun worshippers in Rome. Uhura says she had been monitoring radio messages which made it clear it wasn’t the “Sun in the sky”, but the “Son of God” they were talking about. This is actually a clever bit of plotting and misdirection, though it is spoilt by the subsequent preachy nature of the end-of-story moral.

Also, there is never any explanation of how Merik managed to become First Citizen of the entire Empire. Even a throwaway line about his superior technology or something would have helped, but the question isn’t even raised. And there’s some notable weird coloured lighting in the prison cells again – the back walls are obviously illuminated by red spotlights for some reason. The season 2 lighting director must have loved coloured spotlights. Overall, a slightly below average episode. It’s a bit hokey, but the plot and action are passable, if you can get over the whole Space Romans thing.

Tropes: Bread And Circuses, Planet Of Hats, Space Romans, Inexplicable Cultural Ties, Alien Non-Interference Clause, Involuntary Battle To The Death, Gladiator Games, Flynning, Grudging Thank You, Think Nothing Of It, Theiss Titillation Theory, Sexy Discretion Shot, Thirty Second Blackout, Shoot Out The Lock.
Body count: William B. Harris (gladiatored to death pre-credits, reported as news), Flavius Maximus (shot by guards), Captain Merik (stabbed by Claudius).

I’m assuming this is somebody’s sense of humour…

Saturday, 21 May, 2011

Rapture: Wikipedia page on 21 May, 2011

Science and Imagination

Thursday, 19 May, 2011

The perception of truth is almost as simple a feeling as the perception of beauty; and the genius of Newton, of Shakespeare, of Michael Angelo, and of Handel, are not very remote in character from each other. Imagination, as well as the reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery. Discrimination and delicacy of sensation, so important in physical research, are other words for taste; and love of nature is the same passion, as the love of the magnificent, the sublime, and the beautiful.

– Humphry Davy, chemist and poet, 1807.

South America Diary: Day 3

Saturday, 14 May, 2011

Isla Plaza Sur to Isla Santa Fé. Sunday, 17 April, 2011

South Plaza walkaroundThe boat sailed in the night, picking up its anchor about 02:00. This was a noisy affair, and then the engines added to it, and we slipped out of the relatively gentle waters of the harbour into the open sea, where the waves rocked the boat more vigorously. Not that I was sleeping anyway – the rocking of the boat made it difficult to even stay in one position on the bunk without rolling slightly. I dozed fitfully until morning, when we arrived at the sheltered bay between the small islands of North Plaza and South Plaza, off the eastern coast of the much bigger Santa Cruz.

The dawn looked gorgeous in the islands and this washed away the drowsiness of the night. A few other large boats were moored in the same bay, and we could see groups of people making excursions on to the land via dinghies. Our turn would come later, after breakfast. There was a selection of cereal, fruit, bread, and pancakes, plus French toast, which Anne declared to be her absolute favourite breakfast, thanking Francesco for it. It was made on a slightly sweet brioche-like bread, and was nice.

'e's resting!Following this, we assembled at the aft deck for our first land excursion on an uninhabited island. South Plaza is a small island of volcanic rock, only a few hundred metres long east to west and a few tens of metres wide north to south. The island rises on a gentle slope out of the bay between itself and the parallel North Plaza until it reaches cliffs maybe 10 metres high on the southern side that drop into the sea below. The dinghies took us to a concrete landing platform, where we had our first encounter with real Galapagos wildlife. This consisted mostly of sea lions, sprawled out on the rocks everywhere. They were totally unconcerned at human presence, ignoring us as we walked around and in some cases over them as they lay across the path. Some of them were moving around, splashing in or out of the water along the shore, or clambering around on the rock, but most seemed to be asleep. We saw some pups suckling milk from their mothers. They were of moderate size, friendly, and unimposing looking, which was good, because I know how large and dangerous some species of pinnipeds can be. At no stage did any of them make so much as a hostile gaze at us.

Star Trek 2.24: The Ultimate Computer

Saturday, 14 May, 2011

The Ultimate ComputerThe Ultimate Computer” is your basic Luddite computer-goes-nuts plot. Kirk is upset when computer genius Dr Richard Daystrom is assigned to test his new M-5 computer unit on board the Enterprise. The M-5, according to Daystrom, is capable of taking over all the functions of the ship’s captain and most of the crew. Accordingly, most of the crew disembark on Starbase 6, leaving a skeleton crew of 20 aboard to supervise tests of the M-5, including a war game scenario with other Federation ships.

Kirk spends most of the first half of the episode moping about being replaced by a machine and making speeches about how a computer could never do the job with the same feeling as a human. Meanwhile the M-5 performs admirably, although disconcertingly it cuts power to a couple of decks – but this is explained by Daystrom as efficiency, since those decks contained no personnel. In a bit of foreshadowing, Kirk asks why it is M-5, not M-1. Daystrom replies that versions 1 to 4 were “not entirely successful“. Spock also comments that, lamentably, it is so far not possible to replace the ship’s surgeon with a machine – foreshadowing the later appearance of the holographic doctor in Star Trek: Voyager.

Of course the M-5 goes rogue, treating the war games simulated attack by four Federation vessels as a real attack and firing back with full phasers, severely damaging Commodore Wesley’s USS Lexington and killing everyone on board the USS Excalibur. When Kirk and Scotty try to pull the plug, they discover the M-5 has developed a damaging force field to protect itself and is now sucking unrestrained amounts of power directly from the warp engine reactor. Daystrom is surprised, but also inordinately pleased with his baby, descending by degrees into full blown mad scientist mode as he defends its actions and laments his past glories and how nobody understands him any more.

Wesley contacts Starfleet Command, asking for permission to destroy the Enterprise, a message Kirk hears but cannot respond to because the M-5 has locked communications. Permission is given, and things look hopeless. But then Kirk talks to the M-5, trying to reason with it on its own terms. Daystrom never intended it to kill humans, and in fact loaded his own personality engrams into the M-5 to give it his morals. When Kirk points out that the M-5 has murdered, the M-5 destroys itself in a fit of logic. Kirk is getting really good at talking rogue computers to death – it’s the 4th or 5th time he’s done it in the series so far. However, comms are still down and Wesley is about to attack. Kirk orders shields lowered, leaving the Enterprise completely vulnerable. Wesley interprets this correctly and calls off the attack. There’s a moral about Kirk knowing Wesley would do so, because he was human, not a computer.

One interesting point is that Kirk refers to the M-5 as a mass of “circuits and relays”. I guess relays are back in vogue in the 23rd century. Overall, it’s not a bad plot, just very predictable. An average episode, I’d say.

Tropes: Ludd Was Right, Master Computer, Foreshadowing, Unseen Prototype, AI Is A Crapshoot, Cut The Juice, Mad Scientist, Mama Didn’t Raise No Criminal, Glory Days, Brain Uploading, Logic Bomb, An Aesop.
Body count: Unnamed engineering ensign, at least 53 crew of USS Lexington, entire crew of USS Excalibur (over 400).

South America Diary: Day 2

Friday, 13 May, 2011

Guayaquil to Puerto Ayora. Saturday, 16 April, 2011

From Baltra to Santa CruzWe rose, got into fresh clothes, and packed the clothes we’d been wearing on the flights into our luggage. We grabbed breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which had a buffet including cereals, fruits, and breads, plus a guy cooking eggs to order. It was pretty good. Then we checked out and met our first Intrepid representative of the trip, a guy named William, who would be helping us check in to our flight to the Galapagos at Guayaquil airport.

He took us to a car outside which had a driver in it, and as we drove back to the airport William gave us a briefing in good English of what we needed to do. Ecuador tightly controls entry into the Galapagos Islands, and there are a couple of formalities to be go through. Firstly, we needed US$100 each to be paid as an entry fee to the Galapagos National Park on landing. We knew about this already and had the cash on hand. Next, there is a form needed to be filled out with visitor details, which is attached to your passport on entry to the Galapagos and which is removed on departure (even though it’s a domestic flight within Ecuador). William said these forms cost US$10 each, and ones had been purchased for us through Intrepid as part of our tour package, but they had been lost in the post to Guayaquil, so he didn’t have them for us. He said he would get some new ones for us at the airport when we checked in. At least this is how we figured it out afterwards – it wasn’t entirely clear to us at this time.

Luggage handlersAt Guayaquil airport, William helped us with the check-in procedures, on a flight on the airline TAME. He spoke to a woman at a desk in Spanish for a while, and told us they couldn’t give us the forms here, and we’d need to pay US$10 on arrival in the Galapagos for them. It was good having him there to help us through the check-in, because we would have easily spent three times as long without him, and not had the confidence that we’d done everything properly. After completing the procedures for us, William said farewell and we passed through the security check into the departure lounge. We had a bit of time before departure, so used the free wi-fi to connect and send some e-mails to our parents letting them know where we were.

Star Trek 2.23: The Omega Glory

Friday, 13 May, 2011

The Omega GloryBack into the reviews after my vacation! Unfortunately, the next episode is “The Omega Glory“…

It starts promisingly enough, with the Enterprise arriving at planet Omega IV to find the USS Exeter in orbit, apparently abandoned. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Lieutenant Galloway beam over to investigate and find the crew apparently dehydrated into crystals within their uniforms. A nice juicy mystery! The fact that the beaming party later discover they have been infected with the agent causing this makes one wonder why beaming over, without protective suits, was the first option – even before so much as a scan of the Exeter. Starfleet has a lot of regulations, but apparently very few of them cover routine crew safety.

Checking the last log recorded on board, they see the Exeter‘s medical officer warning anyone on board to beam down to the planet immediately. The party does so, right into the middle of an execution scene, with Asian-looking natives attempting to behead a belligerent Caucasian-looking man and his fur-bikini-clad partner. Captain Tracey of the Exeter appears to break up the scene (amazingly, with an entire planet to choose from, they beamed down within a few metres of him). Tracey explains that the villagers, known as Kohms, have to deal with the threat of attack by the primitive and savage tribespeople known as Yangs. He also explains that the planet provides a natural immunity to the infection that killed his crew. Although they are now safe, they can never leave the planet.

Tracey is glad to have McCoy, because he thinks the immunity factor on the planet can be isolated and used to cure them, then be marketed to the Federation as a fountain of youth. Kirk objects, pointing out how Tracey is violating the Prime Directive by helping the Kohms defend themselves against the Yangs. After the obligatory fist fight, Tracey kills Galloway and throws Kirk and Spock into prison with the two spared Yangs from earlier. McCoy is assigned to work on a serum.

McCoy discovers there is no fountain of youth – the natives simply have naturally long lives. He also learns that the Kohms and Yangs were great civilisations, but fought a bacteriological war that reduced them to primitive states. When Kirk mentions the word “freedom” while discussing escape with Spock, the Yang male stops attacking him and starts talking, saying that “freedom” is a Yang worship word. Kirk deduces that this is a parallel of Earth, with Yankees (Yangs) and Communists (Kohms). This inverts things, with the peaceful Kohm villagers now revealed to be oppressive, while the primitive Yangs are in fact noble savages. Kirk helps the Yangs escape, but they knock him out.

Kirk and Spock escape later. In a showdown fight with Tracey, Kirk indulges in a couple of needless acrobatic dives over a wall and behind a large jar. Tracey corners him, but when firing the fatal shot discovers his phaser is out of power. Cue more fighting, while in the background the massed Yang forces conquer the Kohm village. The Yangs capture all the Starfleet personnel. The Yangs are now revealed to be the rightful owners of this territory, and bring in a battle standard that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Stars & Stripes, complete with “Star Spangled Banner” musical motif. The Yang leader begins reciting some holy words, which Kirk recognises as a garbled version of the Pledge of Allegiance, and finishes off in a rousing speech.

Tracey counters that Kirk is a devil. The Yangs decide to settle the matter by forcing Kirk and Tracey to fight to the death. Kirk wins, of course, but shows mercy, of course. The Yangs are impressed and declare Kirk a god. Kirk looks at their holy documents – a copy of the US Constitution, and declares that the words and concepts therein should apply to everyone, not just Yangs. The Yangs don’t understand, but say they will heed Kirk’s wise words. In the denouement, Spock raises the extremely pertinent question of whether Kirk himself has violated the Prime Directive. Kirk brushes it off, saying he was doing the right thing.

Wow, what a lousy episode. The set up is intriguing, but it devolves into a reality-suspender-busting mish-mash of ridiculously parallel history, racism, and jingoism. Spock even lampshades the uncanny nature of the parallel history with Earth, stating, “the parallel is almost too close.” But even this trick doesn’t work to make the story believable. And the last few minutes, with Kirk spouting patriotic Americanisms to a bunch of space savages is truly painful. It’s just horrible.

Tropes: Red Shirt, Skeleton Crew, Empty Piles Of Clothing, Fur Bikini, Fountain of Youth, Alien Non-Interference Clause, Training The Peaceful Villagers, All For Nothing, Bat Deduction, Space Romans, Red Scare, Noble Savage, That Sounds Familiar, Involuntary Battle To The Death, God Guise, Screw The Rules, I’m Doing What’s Right, Lampshade Hanging.
Body count: Over 400 crew of the USS Exeter (turned into crystals off-screen, pre-credits), Lieutenant Galloway (phasered by Captain Tracey).

South America Diary: Day 1

Wednesday, 11 May, 2011

Sydney to Guayaquil. Friday, 15 April, 2011

Auckland AirportThis diary is beginning a little unusually. Although I kept a handwritten diary for the entire trip, I accidentally lost the book I’d been writing in for the first five days of the trip, covering our entire time in the Galapagos Islands. So I’m typing this part of the trip up from memory after returning home.

Our flight from Sydney left at 09:55 on Friday morning, so we had to be up early to get to the airport with plenty of time to check in. We got up around 06:00, having packed the night before, and simply got dressed and called a taxi. The plan was to have breakfast at the airport after checking in. We checked our bags, went through immigration and security, then found a cafe where we got some muesli, M.’s with milk and mine with yoghurt. I also got a small pastry.

Our first flight was a short hop over to Auckland, New Zealand. We arrived there mid-afternoon local time, and had about an hour and a half to kill in the terminal before being let back onto the plane, which was refuelling for the haul to Santiago. After checking out the shops for a bit, M. got a coffee from one place that took Australian dollars, giving us change back in NZ currency. Then we got a snack from another place that had great looking food. The guy there told us they’d only opened new in the airport that day. They didn’t take non-NZ currency, but we paid for a frittata for M. and a huge slice of carrot cake for me with credit card. The carrot cake was excellent, with a thick slab of cream cheese icing on top.

NZ Carrot CakeBack on the flight, we settled in for the 11 hour haul to Santiago. We crossed the date line during this flight, meaning we ended up arriving in Santiago around noon on 15 April again. I watched the movie The King’s Speech on this flight, which I really enjoyed. We had almost three hours in Santiago airport before our flight to Guayaquil in Ecuador. Despite being tired, we walked up and down the terminal, checking out the shops and various food places. We decided to have a bite to eat in one called La Sebastiana. M. got them to make a toasted cheese sandwich, and we ordered a bowl of chips to munch on too.

Back from South America

Friday, 6 May, 2011

Just got back from my trip to South America. Had a fantastic time. Photos and travel diary to come!