Unexpected Fun With L. Jagi Lamplighter

If you were to walk through the forest and happen across a statue of a woman with feathered wings sitting in a clearing beside a long abandoned stone building, what would you think? Most likely you would assume you’d found an old church, long abandoned by its congregation. Perhaps you’d share a moment of comradery with the place’s guardian angel before continuing on your way. Regardless, you probably wouldn’t find that much out of place with it. 

When Rachel Griffon happens on such a scene at the beginning of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffon that’s not at all how she reacts. 

Rachel has no idea what the statue is when she discovers it and that takes some real doing since she has a flawless memory and has read every travelog, adventure tale and bestiary in her grandfather’s library. Her grandfather was one of the foremost scholars in the World of the Wise, for him to not know something takes quite a bit of doing. It is the mystery of the winged woman, along with a dozen other small things, that forms the core of Rachel’s drive through the course of the story. She wants to know the secrets of the world. Then she wants to share them, for it’s the thrill of revelation that truly fascinates her. 

As a twelve year old girl, nearly thirteen, you might expect the secrets that most interest her to be of a particularly mundane variety. However, while some mundane middle school drama afflicts Rachel, it’s not the focus of the story. The Roanoke Academy of Magical Arts has a great deal more going on in its ancient hallways than just puberty driven angst. 

Anyone remotely familiar with the Harry Potter franchise will immediately understand the core premise of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s series. Rachel Griffon is newly enrolled in magic school and in the halls of that school she will find far more of an education in far more things than she expected. The hidden wizards of her world – the Wise – live far more complicated lives than she expected. Rachel herself isn’t quite what you’d expect of a Harry Potter knockoff. 

Now before I go on let me address that obvious issue you may be raising right now. “Nate,” you say, “middlegrade fantasy is a very worn out genre. How can you expect me to get invested in yet another tale of magical teenagers going to magic school?

I understand this objection. But Lamplighter brings a sense of myth that is badly lacking from a lot of middlegrade literature. Many books written for teens try to tap into the sense, so common in young people, that the world is new and undiscovered and everything that exists just came into existence moments ago. Lamplighter, on the other hand, presents us with a world that is ancient and shaped by strange forces that have left Rachel and her friends in very unenviable postions. Yet those forces are not all hostile or malevolent. Some of them are but most of them are just consequences of big decisions made ages ago, they are signposts of a history that must be understood and lived in by our heroes if they ever hope to make anythign of themselves or their world.

It’s a much stronger approach to worldbuilding and character growth than I’ve found in most middlegrade writing, and that alone makes it worthwhile. Add in the mysteries and character dynamics that Lamplighter does so well and you have a very strong read for just about any audience.

Back to our protagonist. She’s a well bred young woman with loving parents and a noble lineage. Magic was always something she knew of, while her mother held a fondness for the mundane people – the Unwary – that helps her keep a fairly nuanced perspective on the world around her. While a flawless memory helps her with the study of magic, she’s no great talent. Many of her peers pick up their lessons faster than she does. 

Rachel doesn’t even have a grand destiny laid out before her. Some of her friends are fated for heroics, but Rachel herself isn’t one of them. If she wishes to do some great thing for the world around her she’ll have to find that work and take it on herself. 

The conflicts at Roanoke are deeply steeped in the history and lore of Lamplighter’s world. As you might expect of a story starring someone who never forgets, connecting details of past events to unravel current problems is an ongoing theme in this story. Rachel delights in gathering facts, making connections and revealing her secrets at the right moment. We delight in seeing whether she’s chosen the right moment (which she does often) or if youth and naivety have deceived her and she’s misread the situation (which isn’t rare). 

Beneath all the flashy magic spells, shadows of old evils and standard schoolyard drama, however, Rachel faces deeper issues. One touch I really liked came in the third novel. After several weeks of chaos, emotional strain and traumatic events, Rachel finds herself on the verge of a very believable mental breakdown which is resolved, as so many things in her life, by the unexpected but totally coherent application of her flawless memories. It’s hard to describe more without spoiling the moment, so I’ll leave it at that – suffice it to say this is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. 

Another interesting deep current running through Lamplighter’s novels is the twin questions of purpose and allegiance. Rachel is constantly looking at her loyalties to friends and family and comparing them to her own wants and goals. She’s a very driven character, but also a very devoted one. Reconciling her strong sense of duty to principle and loyalty to others is difficult for her. Her principles are challenged and some are worn down in ways that don’t benefit her. Five novels in and Rachel still doesn’t have a clear cut, highest standard for her life. Yet. 

But there are hints. 

One of the greatest achievements Lamplighter reaches with her series is inviting the audience to share Rachel’s delight in knowing a secret. Yes, we follow her adventures and know many of the secrets she knows. However, things go a layer deeper than that. You remember our opening thought experiment, of finding a guardian angel by a ruined church? This is a secret we know that Rachel does not

There are other hints to that secret in the early pages of the first book. Rachel owns a model of broom known as a steeplechaser. However, no one knows the meaning of the word steeple. It’s an orphaned word, like saint, so old that its meaning is lost even though people still use it. And, of course, there is the familiar. All the students at Roanoke have familiars but Rachel’s roommate brought a particularly unusual one. A lion, miniaturized for convenience. A lion that talks to a raven on the windowsill in the middle of the night. Even among the Wise, even among the enhanced creatures known as familiars, animals don’t talk

But these two do. The lion isn’t supposed to be there, the raven says. He was called, the lion explains, and where he is called no earthly power can keep him from answering. Not even in a world where knowledge of him has been locked away. 

This is the secret we know, but Rachel does not. We know the Lion of Judah and we get to watch Rachel slowly discover him in spite of the painstaking efforts made to hide him from view. In spite of the fact that the lion here is behind enemy lines. In spite of all the other things clamoring for her attention. This part of Rachel’s story is what truly gripped me as I read Lamplighter’s books. It was a brilliant idea, executed in a way that did a wonderful job of holding my attention. If watching someone discover that secret seems like a worthwhile tale to you, I would highly recommend this tale. 

Mary’s Wedding – Simple Excellence

I recently had the opportunity to go and take in a little theater. The name of the show was Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte and I went in with very few expectations. I’d never heard of the play and the description didn’t tell me much beyond it being set around World War I and the two actors portrayed a young couple in love. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had confidence in the group producing the show, all for One Productions doesn’t go for saccharine stories after all, but I sat down in the theater with some reservations. 

I needn’t have worried. 

Before we break down the story itself let me say a few words of praise for the production itself. First, the cast of Jessica Munsie (Mary, Flowers) and Cooper Beer (Charlie) did fantastic work. Their performances were sincere, emotive and engaging. They studied horseback riding to add authenticity to some of their scenes and it showed. They had great chemistry with each other and the audience. The set was also perfect, built in two layers and full of props used in surprising and interesting ways. From the use of wheeled railings as doors and horses to the upper level’s many duties as hills, bridges and the deck of a ship, the minimalist set did everything it needed to and more without ever straining belief. 

Many people say seeing how a trick is done makes one appreciate it less. Mary’s Wedding is the kind of show that convinces me that the opposite is true. I caught a dozen little flourishes, like the causal setting of a hat on a platform as an actor walks around behind the stage, that speak to the practice, dedication and proficiency both actors developed while preparing for the show. It made me enjoy the performance more and not less. Well done, one and all. 

Now for the story itself. Mary’s Wedding focuses on the titular Mary as she dreams on the eve of her wedding. We are introduced to this dream by one of its chief figures: her sweetheart, Charlie. He tells us we are seeing a dream, and as it is a dream we must understand it follows its own logic and its own sense of time. It’s a great opening soliloquy, drawing from concepts we often see in Shakespeare and intended to lull the audience into the theater of the mind. Many plays do this, in one way or another, because the sets and costumes may be great but we know, deep down, they’re not real and the illusion of the stage is not as powerful as, say, that of the movie screen. 

A good storyteller knows how to weave the spell that creates this illusion of reality for audience and sometimes that’s as simple as asking them to step into the narrative with us. It’s a bold approach, and Massicotte deserves props for taking it. I know it worked for me. 

From this simple introduction a clap of thunder snaps us into the narrative itself – Charlie, seeking shelter from a thunderstorm and Mary calling out to him. This ominous opening gives way to Mary and Charlie’s first meeting, as they both hide from the rain in a barn. Mary is recently arrived in Canada from England, Charlie is a longtime resident of the area so they’ve never had opportunity to meet before. Mary helps Charlie overcome his fear of the thunder by coaxing him to recite poetry. Charlie only knows The Charge of the Light Brigade so that is what he quotes. 

This is when I realized this story didn’t have a happy ending. 

The dire stanzas of Tennyson’s poem weave throughout the play, a simple foreshadowing for a simple man. Charlie is like the cavaliers Tennyson describes – fixated on his duties and carrying them out. He knows things could end badly for him, but he presses forward regardless. This is contrasted with the poem Mary cites as something she has no wish to live out: The Lady of Shalott.

Subtlety, thy name is Stephen. 

All joking aside, these simple allusions give Mary’s Wedding a chance to weave these grandiose and romantic notions of duty and heartbreak into a very simple romance story. Mary and Charlie are from different worlds and different social standings but they fall in love. We see their relationship as it struggles to survive awkward meetings in the town streets, flubbed meetings with families and ultimately Charlie’s decision to join up and fight in the Great War in 1914. Interspersed with stories of the growing romance are stories of Charlie’s time in Europe, told to Mary through letters he sends home from the front. 

Both aspects are told in a blunt and straightforward way. This is not a Hollywood romance or war movie. Much of the pretense of such stories are stripped away, with Massicotte focusing on very realistic dialog and motivations for his characters. Charlie’s letters home sound very much like those I’ve read in compilations of first-hand accounts from any number of wars from the present day back to the American Civil War. Mary and Charlie’s relationship is free of flowery promises or generic statements of affection. 

Many stories could be fairly criticized for trying to characterize their protagonists using well know works of literature. But, while Massicotte is doing that in his script, he is also doing something a little more complicated than that. He is showing his characters use these poems to try and express themselves to each other. The Charge of the Light Brigade grapples with many philosophical questions that people think about but rarely try to articulate to each other. When forced to explain the horns of a dilemma like that which Tennyson describes, the average person will fail to put their thoughts into their own words. So, they turn to the poets. 

It is this, I think, that makes Mary’s Wedding work. It shows us simple, everyday people as they put their hand to every tool at their disposal to connect with each other and share their struggles. It’s an impressive achievement. 

The portrayal of Flowers, Charlie’s commanding officer during his time in Europe, is another fascinating device. Flowers is portrayed by the same actress who plays Mary. When Flowers and Charlie first meet Charlie is on the troop ship headed to Europe, smoking while watching the ocean at night. Flowers finds him and asks what he’s thinking about, to which Charlie admits he’s thinking about a girl back home. Flowers warns him not to do that, or soon enough he’ll be seeing her everywhere – which, of course, he already is. The close friendship the two develop is illuminating and powerful, and Jessica Munsie’s portrayal of Flowers was so excellent that I never confused her with Mary in my mind. It provides us a look at another side of Charlie, one we need to really appreciate before the story concludes or the conclusion will not be as powerful as it should be. 

Ultimately, Charlie never comes home. 

Charlie only lives in the dream, now, and soon enough Mary must wake up and continue on with her life. Her wedding day is coming. There is still a good life ahead of her, even with all the grief and regret that came from her parting with Charlie. That is the promise at the end of Mary’s Wedding. It’s a bittersweet ending, but the only ending their story could possibly have had. The thunder we heard at the beginning of the story is quiet now, and the rains have left poppies in their wake. And just like Mary, we must wake from the dream on that stage and leave Mary, Charlie and Flowers behind. 

As nearly as I can tell, while many of the events in Mary’s Wedding actually happened, Charlie and Mary were not real. Their story was a dream we shared for a moment. But we can carry that simple dream with us in our waking lives, a reminder that the peace we have was bought at great sacrifice. A reminder that after loss we can still carry on. Those simple messages are a powerful gift, and one I am grateful to have.  

Fall 2021 Reading Wrap-Up

I am a writer, and so I read. What have I read recently? Strap in. 

Thrawn: Greater Good, by Timothy Zahn 

I’m a longtime lover of Zahn’s work and, while I’m not invested in the Star Wars franchise these days, I will make an exception for him. His latest series in that franchise focus on a new origin for his fan favorite character, Grand Admiral Thrawn. The first trilogy of books was somewhat interesting, but largely existed as peripheral works to the TV show Rebels, which I haven’t watched. That did reduce my investment in the series some, although I found the second novel in that trilogy very enjoyable overall. However, his second trilogy allows him the freedom to play around with the kinds of world building and open ended tactical inventiveness that is fun to read and dig in to. Beyond that, we get to see a wide array of interesting characters at different levels of society all trying to play out their interests and balance them against the titular greater good. 

Beyond that, Zahn is playing an interesting game. In most of his novels we learn a great deal about his antagonists and follow a lot of the game from both sides of the gameboard. However, in this trilogy Thrawn’s opponent is hidden from view for 95% of the story, which gives it a different flavor. A warning – outside of Thrawn himself this novel has very few ties to the wider Star Wars galaxy. If you’re not a fan of the character and you’re looking for Star Wars, rather than just Thrawn, it may not be for you. 

For Crew and Country, by John Wukovitz 

This is another niche book. As a long time student of the Samar Island action during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, I try to read every book on the subject that comes out (which is about one every four or five years.) Crew and Country is a complete service history of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, from its commissioning to its loss in combat on 25 October, 1944. This is not really a good book for people new to the topic to read. (Read The Battle for Leyte Gulf by C. Vann Woodward or The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Oct. 23-26 1944 by Thomas J. Culter before this book if you’re not familiar with the story at all.) 

While Last Epic Naval Battle by David Sears or Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer are brilliant retellings of the story from the level of the normal crewman, and Hornfischer also goes deeply into the story of the Roberts, Wukovitz digs into that one specific crew to the point where you almost feel like you’re talking to someone who served with them. Every other retelling of the story presents the reader with a jumble of crazy events unfolding in parallel, which is understanding as that’s how a battle plays out. But in Crew and Country diversions from the decks of the Roberts are brief and this creates a very different atmosphere to the crews training, Crossing of the Line, service in the Pacific and final defense of Taffy 3. 

Perhaps it takes a person who’s spent a decade trying to learn new tidbits about a six hour period of history to appreciate this book. All I can say is, if that’s the case, you should try it some time. This book, and the men it pays tribute to, are treasures that you deserve to enjoy. 

When Christmas Comes, by Andrew Klavan 

I reviewed Klavan’s Another Kingdom trilogy some time ago. While I found the way he released and promoted that series very interesting, as a fantasy series and allegorical tale it was merely above average. Klavan is a good storyteller and master of the crime story (Werewolf Cop made that clear when I read it) but he never put in quite the research into the practical aspects of things like sword duels, armor and other aspects of medieval life to quite sell them when they came up in his story. 

But with When Christmas Comes, Klavan has returned to his roots. As a crime story, its suitably dark and gripping. Cameron Winter is a fascinating protagonist, with an understandable malaise about his character that both he and we hope to see dispelled. And the story is full of unsavory characters we can loathe as well as sympathetic ones we can attach to. If it has one major weakness it would be brevity. 

When Christmas Comes is a very noir story, with purple prose, a man with a solid moral core, and a lot of very nasty people around him. Those are both its biggest selling points and the thing I believe most detractors will dislike. That said, it’s not a wildly inventive tale. If you like an expertly executed crime story, this will not disappoint. But it’s not as inventive as the Another Kingdom novels or Werewolf Cop. I highly recommend it to fans of crime drama and character studies, and perhaps the casual murder mystery crowd. But beyond that, I don’t know as the story will have much purchase. 

Soulfinder: Demon’s Match and Black Tide, by Douglas Ernst 

Iconic Comics puts out a number of fun adventure titles but of all of them Soulfinder is the darkest, most mature and most interesting. In many reviews, these would automatically equate to being of the best quality. I do not believe you need dark or mature themes or even deep and interesting concepts to create an excellent story. In fact, adding these things to a subpar story can make it worse, not better. 

All that said, Soulfinder is probably the best comic Iconic offers, which I say as no slight to their other titles. Father Patrick Retter is an infantry veteran turned priest who gets offered the chance to take the ultimate blending of his skills – a position as one of the Vatican’s Soulfinder Exorcists. 

The Soulfinder narrative moves on multiple levels. Retter has personal relationships that range from close friendship to tense family ties. And there are demons. He has responsibilities to the parishioners at his church and presumably, at some point, his own matters of faith to consider. Also, demons. 

Ernst has put a lot of interesting things in the air and he juggles them quite well, delivering good stories and good characters while avoiding many of the common traps stories about exorcist priests often fall into. I know that Ernst is a devout Roman Catholic, a veteran and a widely travelled man. He’s done his research and brings a lot of knowledge and authenticity to the table. Retter and his allies are likeable people with a lot of good skills and good heads on their shoulders. It’s also nice to see a story that not only isn’t shy about matters of faith, but actively embraces them. That may turn off a small portion of the audience but even openminded atheists have read and enjoyed the series, so I find I can recommend it to anyone over 12 whole heartedly. Younger readers may find the themes and concepts a little over their head and the imagery unsettling. 

And that’s the reading round up for this essay series! We now move back to my next fiction project so, as is traditional, there will be a week off before coming back to the preface of the  

Shaking and Straining – Of Circumstances and Art

My favorite band of all time is Five Iron Frenzy, a little known third wave ska band of the mid ’90s and early ’00s. I was introduced to the band when I was eleven or twelve and just starting to form my own tastes in music and it was also the first band I won a convert for, introducing a fellow Boy Scout named James to their music a few years later. When the band went into retirement in 2003 it was the end of an era of my life. I still have all their albums save their first, and listen to them on a semi regular basis. Thanks to poor messaging I missed the opportunity to back the Kickstarter for FIF’s first reunion album, Engine of a Million Plots. But I did catch the campaign for their latest album, Until This Shakes Apart.

The contrasts are quiet interesting. Where Million Plots is one of the strongest albums in FIF’s discography, Until This Shakes Apart is… not.

The music of Five Iron Frenzy evolved a lot during their roughly decade long absence from the scene. It became a bit more melancholy, a bit less recklessly optimistic. That’s understandable, given the changes in outlook age can bring, but even with the change in tone Million Plots featured the same irrepressible energy I’ve always associated with the band and added a kind of seasoned wisdom to them that was pleasing and wholesome. Lyrically outside of the disappointing “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” the band’s songs kept focused on the kind of big picture storytelling I’ve always associated the band with. The songs are about the human condition, how it leads us astray, and, to a lesser extent, how we escape our worse natures and strive for our better.

Engine of a Million Plots plays much like a story. Many of the tracks roll into one another and tell us about the dangers of hubris and blind escapism, while reminding us that holding out for the good things does eventually pay the biggest dividends, even if it isn’t always fun.

Shakes Apart is much more focused in the here and now. The music is almost lethargic, it feels like a slog to listen to sometimes. The lyrics are also very based in the present moment. Where Million Plots talks about the timeless parts of the human condition, Until This Shakes Apart is focused on the unique circumstances surrounding its creation. There’s a place for that in art, no doubt. But that place was rarely the music of Five Iron Frenzy.

It’s true, tracks like “Giants”, “Goodbye, Goodnight” and “The Untimely Death of Brad” had points that ring true even now, some twenty years after originally written, but even those, while based on immediate events, drew out timeless truths about the human experience. On the other hand, tracks from Shakes Apart like “In Through the Out Door”, “Lonesome for Her Heroes”, “Renegades”, “Tyrannis” and “While Supplies Last” share the dull, unpleasant, scolding tone of “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”, displaying a disdain and lack of empathy for their targets that is ugly and frankly laughable. Granted, third wave ska was heavily influence by punk, a truly dreary, scolding, self important genre of music, but for the most part FIF had avoided punk’s worst tendencies until now.

Shakes Apart does manage to hit some highs, with “So We Sing” bringing a little of FIFs old optimism back and “Auld Lanxiety” is a very potent reminder of the power of music to bring comfort. “Homelessly Devoted to You” is a wonderful, sweet love song and “One Heart Hypnosis” lampoons our addictions to social media brilliantly. “Like Something I Missed” and “Huerfano” are wonderful, fun tracks to listen to. But all told, that leaves about half the album below par and much of that steeped in a very offputting shroud of self-righteous lecturing.

Most notably, the silly, irreverent, purely humorous songs that were Five Iron’s strongest brand for decades are entirely absent from this disk. Even Million Plots had “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter.” Perhaps over the years something has been lost.

And perhaps it was merely circumstance. Million Plots was written and released during the Obama administration, when many of the social and political goals FIF advocated for were coming to fruition. Shakes Apart was primarily written during the Trump administration, a dark time for the self styled progressives that fill the bands ranks. It was disappointing and trying for those progressives I know in my personal life, even though I found little changed for me personally from the administrations of 44 and 45. It wasn’t uncommon for them to become bitter, preachy and caustic. Most art became that way as well. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Five Iron was caught in the flow.

Perhaps they can turn things around with their next album, if one arrives. We’ll have to wait and see. Still, it was an interesting outcome, and I felt strongly enough about it to add this review to my scheduled essays. I hope you got something out of this. See you next week.

Spring 2020 Fiction Roundup

It’s been a while since I read or watched a fresh tale and felt truly inspired to sit down and think through everything I loved and hated about it, what worked and what didn’t. That’s partly because I haven’t been reading as much fiction as in days past and partly because I haven’t seen as much that really impressed me in the last few years. Maybe our cultural institutions are on the decline. Maybe I’m just more jaded and cynical about media these days. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

That said, I’ve had the pleasure of watching, reading and listening to some very entertaining fiction in the last year or so months and I thought I would share some of it with you. Strap in, because we’re going to go through this quick!

We begin with Another Kingdom by Andrew Klavan. I covered this series once, after the first season concluded. With the conclusion of the audio version of this series now out and available for free on the YouTube you can sit down and enjoy a truly rousing adventure story that takes many of the shibboleths of modern culture (particularly in Hollywood) to task while showing one man’s transformation from timid and uncertain to confident and purposeful. There’s a lot of interesting allegories at work in the story, clear enough to speak to the audience but general enough not to come off as preachy. While Klavan’s prose sometimes belabors a point a little too much and Knowles’ performance still doesn’t always sell the female characters listening to Another Kingdom is still quite the fun experience.

In much the same vein, This Sounds Serious is a hilarious sendup and love letter to the true crime podcast. From the rivalry of two very odd twin brothers to the fascination an entire small town in Washington has with Joe Rogan, the creators of this spoof podcast series has an eye for the absurd that they always try to emphasize while crafting fun and devious crime stories to tell us about in a mockumentary fashion. There’s not a lot of great traditional character work here, nor are you likely to grow over attached to any of the characters as the cast will mostly change from season to season. But there is a kind of suspense built over time and it is quite fun to listen to, even if you’re not likely lot laugh out loud more than once or twice an episode.

The Dragon Prince is an interesting take on a fantasy property. While I’ve found its approach to some issues to be a little lacking in thought on the whole it builds good characters and takes a nuanced approach to most of the issues it discusses, showing even its obviously evil characters as well rounded and even occasionally sympathetic characters. It has an eye for action and a wonderful aesthetic to its world. While a lot of questions about the philosophical questions it wants to ask are unanswered at this point on the whole I prefer that willingness to let the issues breath. For example, Dragon Prince brings up issues of prejudice quite often. So far, the issues that prejudice presents have never been resolved in a single episode, as many other shows aimed at younger viewers would insist on doing. Some of the lesser side characters are never confronted about their prejudice since confronting this lesser evil would take away from the character’s ability to pursue other goals, forcing them to chose which good ends they will pursue. Thus we see the characters interacting with prejudice in much more realistic, true to life ways. That’s nice to see, and I’ll probably continue to follow Dragon Prince until its run is over.

If you’re wondering what I thought of Castlevania Season 3, as I said in my Castlevania Seasons 1 and 2 review, I’m happy with where that story ended and don’t plan on watching it. However, Sei Manos, an interesting blend of the Western and a Kung Fu film, produced by the same studio as Castlevania, manages to bring a new level of smoothness to the animation while crafting a radically different tale about a Kung Fu master with a devilish secret who dies, leaving his three pupils to struggle with various dark powers as they try to unravel the bizarre blending of drug trafficking and occult powers that threaten their small Mexican town in the late 1970s. It’s mostly intense action but, much like in their previous vampire tale, the writers and animators find plenty of human moments to leaven its ghostly tale. But more than that, it manages to take an animated character, who tends to take a lot of their personality from their voice actors, and make him a mute while still giving you a clear window into his personality and desires. A remarkable achievement, all things considered.

A Letter for the King is very different from many fantasy products aimed at young adults. It presents us with a totally normal protagonist – no, not totally normal. He’s probably a bit weaker and more cowardly than most. It then sends him on an adventure pursued by friends and foes alike, with the charge to deliver… well, a letter to the king. The journey will cost Tiuri far more than he thought, and along the way he will have to confront poor decisions on the part of himself, his family and his friends. He’ll find that his good character is rarely rewarded by the world around him. And in the end he’ll make things right not with magic, strength or cunning but determination, trust and courage. There are major failures in the writing of this series, particularly as regards the climax. But the heart behind the message and the decision to put character at the heart of the conflict makes it a refreshing change from most of its peers.

Last summer I was beta reader for a novel called The Last Warpiper, which is a fantasy novel about an elite soldier who plays the bagpipes.

Wait! Come back! The bagpipes are broken for most of the story!

In all seriousness, Warpiper is a very straightforward, John Wick kind of story about a man who has been wronged by the King and has only one means to set things right. It’s good worldbuilding, an interesting protagonist and anthropomorphic cats. What more could you want, amiright?

Marion G. Harmon’s Repercussions marks a major inflection point in his Wearing the Cape series. Hope Corrigan spends the first three years of her career as a professional Cape protecting the city of Chicago but in this story we see her scope of operations believably enlarged to an international scale. It’s been interesting to watch Harmon’s slow building stakes over the past three or four novels and in this one he has finally decided to go all in and swing for the fences. Many superhero stories try to do this far too quickly, putting the fate of the world in the balance very quickly and it frequently strains believability. This is Harmon’s eighth book and he’s just now getting to the global stage. Rather than coming too soon, I’m almost annoyed it’s only happening now. But only almost – this was an excellent paradigm shift for the series and if you like the series or superhero lit in general it’s well worth reading.

That’s all of the really noteworthy stories I’ve taken in since I started writing Pay the Piper. If you’re looking for something to do in the next few weeks (but why would you be?) then they’re well worth checking out. If you’ve already read them, be sure to let me know what you think!

The Big Short – Larry Correia’s Target Rich Environment

It’s always hard to talk about short story collections. Even when they’re written by a single author there’s rarely any kind of narrative through line, they frequently lack a shared cast and tend to vary wildly in tone. In my experience the best way to tackle them is to discuss the author so before we get to Target Rich Environment we need to talk about Larry Correia first.

Correia is a somewhat popular fantasy and science fiction writer known for long, pulpy novels with an emphasis on crazy action and bizarre creatures. While many of his characters are characters they aren’t the deepest examples of character writing in the world. These stories are written for the penny dreadful enthusiast and feature exotic locations, pretty women and hard fighting. There’s lots of good, honest fun to be had but not much in the way of the deeply psychological or introspective. That alone should be enough for you to decide whether you want to read it or not, but if you really need convincing I’ll say a few words about the stories themselves.

Monster Hunter International is Correia’s biggest franchise and features a solid ten books, six by Correia alone and four with cowriters. There are two shorts in the collection featuring MHI, one that stretches back to a time before most of the existing stories, the other focusing on a side character from the main novels as he struggles with the personnel issues that come from working in professional monster extermination. Both stories feature the kind of B movie, fast moving zaniness that defines the MHI franchise and are fun, but not particularly remarkable. MHI has worked best when Correia lets his imagination run free and follows wherever it goes, something a short story doesn’t always allow. While neither story feels incomplete they don’t really measure up to other MHI stories.

The Grimnoir Chronicles are a different take on pulp, focusing less on action and adventure and more on the moody feel of a film like The Maltese Falcon. While MHI ostensibly takes place in the world we know, Grimnoir is in a neon soaked 1920s where magic is spreading through the general populace and changing the face of warfare and espionage. Both the Grimnoir shorts in the collection focus on the franchise’s protagonist, Jake Sullivan, and tell a little about his life before and after the Grimnoir trilogy. The second also hints that Sullivan’s story stretches out beyond the three books and two shorts he’s appeared in. They’re great stories for fans of the franchise, but only the first will really jell with people who haven’t read Jake’s other adventures.

There are a number of shorts set in other people’s worlds, using original characters. These are pretty much what I’d expect – again, adventure stories with fun action and fun characters that don’t work the brain too hard. But it’s in the collection’s original stories that we find the hidden gem. “The Adventures of Tom Strange, Interdimensional Insurance Salesman” is Correia at his best. While the premise is a bit sillier than he usually goes for, Correia wisely chose to steer into the absurdities of interdimensional insurance, piling one misadventure on top of another in an ever evolving pile of goofiness until you don’t really care if Tom’s weapon of choice is the Combat Wombat, or that Correia himself (from a parallel dimension, of course) sits atop one of the most powerful organizations in the cosmos or even that Tom’s intern is a hapless, Starbucks chugging wimp. All you really care about is seeing where the story goes and how much it will make you chuckle. The original audiobook version was read by Adam Baldwin, which I’m sure added to its appeal.

On the whole, Target Rich Environment is a great investment for the short story lover or the adventure story lover. It’s not the greatest pick for the person who overthinks his reading material. But if you have  a long international flight coming up you could do worse than taking this book along with you.

Into the Spiderverse – Focus Please

Sometimes a movie comes along that is such an achievement in one area that it overwhelms any and all shortcomings it might have in other areas. Such a film is Into the Spiderverse.

Let me come out and say it right away, the animation of this movie is so far beyond anything else an American digital studio has achieved that it needs to be taught in animation schools. Practically every frame of it is perfect and it’s many stylistic choices, such as visualizing sound effects and internal monologues as a comic book might, enhance its charm rather than distracting from it. If visual appeal were all that counted this would truly be the greatest Spiderman tale ever to grace the silver screen. Alas, while film is a visual medium it is still a storytelling medium and by that measure Into the Spiderverse doesn’t quite stack up.

The fact is, the movie has too many plot threads and doesn’t quite weave them together into a web the way it would like. Spiderverse looks like a simple passing the torch movie at first glance. Peter Parker is Spiderman but he gets killed in a battle with the Kingpin. He passes the necessary information to defeat the Kingpin to a graffiti artist by the name of Miles Morales, who just so happens to have been bitten by a radioactive spider – just like Peter – and tasks Miles with stopping the Kingpin before things get worse. The problem is Miles has no idea how to do that or what kinds of things will be getting worse.

Things get weirder when Miles meets a much older version of Peter Parker with a slightly different hair color who has retired from Spiderman life and turns out to be from an alternate dimension. Miles enlists alternate Peter for help, although after hearing his backstory he’s not entirely sure this is the best source of advice he could find. Still beggars can’t be choosers and the two set off to foil the Kingpin. It turns out the villain is building an interdimensional bridge and the two have to close it. To do that they wind up enlisting the help of Spider Gwen, Spider Noir, Spider Ham and Cyber Spider, four other alternate dimension people who also got bitten by radioactive spiders and have their own backstories.

Oh, and Miles’ uncle? Who taught him how to paint and is also secretly a supervillain and thus on the outs with his brother, Miles’ dad who is a cop? Turns out he’s working for the Kingpin and that makes things even more complicated. Miles also needs to understand his powers and adjust to a new school and generally try and fit in to teen life.

Follow all that?

No, you probably didn’t. The movie doesn’t help matters either, moving at a breakneck pace and rarely stopping to explore anything with any depth. To be fair to the film, the classic Spiderman themes of power, responsibility and family, embodied in Miles, and his father and uncle, get a good amount of time and development. These parts of the story are deep and leave an emotional impression. But the rest of it gets less development and often comes off as rushed or flat. In particular, the alternate Peter is rushed and the other Spiders are flat, one note characters. And as a group the Spiders are kind of muddled, sharing one basic backstory and very similar powersets. The film comes off as very, very unfocused.

And it’s the worst kind of unfocused. There’s nothing wrong with any of the ideas Spiderverse offers. It just can’t stop and develop many of them enough for them to feel important. And those ideas it does develop are strong enough to tell me that if it had focused on two or three of its ideas it would have been great instead of just good. Honestly, I’d have rather had a movie with Miles, the Alternate Spiderman and the Kingpin with just Miles’ uncle as an employee rather than the much more overstuffed film that’s on offer. Into the Spiderverse wants too much of a good thing and, much like the DCEU that tried to cram years of franchise building into a few films, it winds up a worse product than it could have been as a result.

Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it and enjoy it. It’s good execution on great themes and it is a joy to behold. It’s just not everything it could have been – or the greatest film outing for Spiderman.

Who in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

The greatest movie theme song ever written is Ghostbusters. It’s fun, swingy and catchy, the kind of tune that crawls into your subconscious mind and emerges whenever it’s most embarrassing. By the same token, one of the greatest TV show themes ever written belongs to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a geography trivia gameshow that I remember fondly from the days of my youth. It was performed by the excellent vocal group Rockapella and it had some of the best wordplay and catchiest melodies on PBS. When the gameshow morphed into a history trivia show with a time travel theme the biggest loss was the theme song and Rockapella.

By the same coin, the one place I’d say Netflix’s take on Carmen Sandiego falls short is in its loss of that theme song.

This new Netflix take on the franchise is not the first attempt to morph the computer adventure games/quiz shows into a story driven animated series. There was a similar take run on Fox Kids in the mid-nineties, and in the spirit of disclosure I should note that I’ve never seen a full episode of that show. Neither have I played any of the adventure games – although we did own the “Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?” board game and I watched a lot of the PBS quiz shows, which gave me some familiarity with the franchise.

For those not familiar, all iterations of the franchise up until Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego have revolved around detectives from the ACME Crimenet trying to locate and capture renowned international superthief Carmen Sandiego, most notable for her snazzy red coat and hat, penchant for stealing outrageous things from unlikely places, and on the nose naming sense. (Her criminal empire goes by “VILE”. Yes, really.) The franchise also tended to be very upfront with the fact that the audience was expected to participate. Players of the computer games were addressed directly, and called “Player” by name. Likewise, in the Fox cartoon, there was a mute figure by a computer who the other characters relied on for information who they referred to as Player, and who would often be left with trivia questions to answer at commercial breaks – with the expectation that the audience would make guesses as they waited for the show to come back on, of course.

The most interesting aspect of the quiz show, for me as a young child, was that Carmen very frequently got away. The challenges of the show were hard and gumshoes rarely made it through the final round successfully and, if they couldn’t finish in time, Carmen eluded them. Likewise, the other iterations of the franchise kept Carmen a step ahead of her pursuers so that she could sneak away to plot a new crime in a new installment. Her henchmen and goals would change but she was a constant. That made her the most well defined, most interesting part of the franchise.

Moving her from the role of villain to misunderstood hero must have been a natural move for the Netflix writing team. By transforming Carmen from a globetrotting crimeboss to a catburglar trying to turn over a new leaf, the latest incarnation of the franchise does a lot to push the story towards a coherent narrative with clear and constant conflict, rather than just a series of random trivia challenges as in incarnations past.

Carmen was always a bit of a mysterious figure, the better to turn up in surprising situations with no clear motive. This new take preserves that mystique by making Carmen’s origins a bit of a mystery to even herself (Orphans! A writer’s favorite kind of child!) but gives her simple and somewhat idealistic motives that make her an accessible protagonist, rather than a distant antagonist.

Fortunately, although the central character is radically reimagined, everything else about the franchise is firing on all cylinders. ACME and VILE are still part of the world; Carmen is a VILE defector and ACME is a spy network dedicated to finding and bringing down VILE. Carmen’s support team is made up of familiar faces. Zach and Ivy, homages to the protagonists of the Fox series, provide Carmen’s field support while her comms and research person is a Canadian white hat hacker who goes only by Player. And VILE’s criminal network still spans the globe and targets cultural artifacts, so the story still travels everywhere and brings up lots of local trivia like local customs, imports and exports and fine works of art.

There are new elements in the mix, like the ACME agents Chase Devineaux and Julia Argent, who are Carmen’s foils on the other side of the law. They’re introduced in a way that almost makes them feel like red herrings – they work for Interpol at first – but slowly grow to be more and more of a pain in her side. Keeping the ACME Chief as the hard faced lady from the quiz show rather than the floating head of the games and cartoon was a nice touch, even if most of the witty dialog that made that character so much fun hasn’t worked its way into the show yet.

VILE is similarly a mix of old and new. Since they basically appeared only as antagonists who players had to find, VILE operatives tended to appear alone or in small groups and never discuss how their organization worked. With the focus now on a former member of that organization, that’s changed. VILE has many more characters here than in days past, and the only familiar one is The Contessa. Pretty much everything else is made from scratch, and they offer an interesting slew of villains to serve as foils for Carmen. They’re interesting characters who manage to avoid being cartoonish villains, but I must admit I miss the likes of Double Trouble or Vic the Slick. They wouldn’t fit quite as organically in Carmen’s new world so I understand why they aren’t there, but it’s still a small disappointment.

However, after watching all of Carmen Sandiego, I still feel there’s something missing. Beyond Rockapella, that is. Carmen isn’t going anywhere, personally speaking. She’s set out to bring down VILE on her own – fair enough. Maybe she has something to prove. Maybe she just wants to definitively turn over a new leaf. But so far what this radical new direction means for her as a character hasn’t been addressed. That keeps the series from being more than just a romp through a nostalgic property, which is too bad because the studio behind it really put in the work to make an engaging show on pretty much every other front. If we were going to delve into Carmen Sandiego as deeply as we delved into world cultures I might be tempted back for another season. As it is, I’m probably going to pass.

Unless Rockapella comes back. Get on that, Netflix.

Star Trek: The Teetering Foundations

By the time Star Trek: Enterprise premiered in 2002 the Star Trek franchise was facing two serious obstacles that it has never really overcome. Both, ironically enough, relate to technology.

The first was the changing face of television. Cable television had rewritten the face of TV, making dozens and dozens of entertainment options available to most people at any given time. When broadcast TV was limited to a handful of channels TV shows didn’t have to instantly enrapture their audience in order to hold their interest, there just weren’t that many places they could go to find alternatives. Star Trek shows rarely hit on all cylinders in their first season but as one of the few TV scifi franchises available to viewers it got some leeway. Now there are dozens of options available to audiences and securing an audience is difficult if you don’t grab them immediately.

In truth, this has been an obstacle to all aspiring TV shows for the last twenty years or so, but the market for science fiction is smaller than most genres and the Star Trek franchise is not cheap to produce either. Overall, by the turn of the century there were just more scifi options demanding the attention of potential viewers and Enterprise would have to compete with them. Ultimately it had a hard time, due in part to the very sporadic quality of episodes in its first season and a half.

The second problem is more pressing. The fact is, the future is now. The look, feel and capabilities of 24th century technology was set in the late 80s by NextGen and hadn’t been significantly updated since. By 2002 many people had flip cellphones, undoubtedly inspired in part by the look and feel of Original Series era technology, and even more advanced technology was constantly on the way. By the end of the Enterprise run the iPod line of music players was in full swing with four options to choose from and the first iPad was only five years away. If the appeal of Star Trek was its vision of the future one of its biggest drawbacks from the beginning of the twenty first century would be how present day much of it looked. Sure, we don’t have replicators, warp drives or tachyon scanners, but we have smart phones that accomplish more than the average tricorder, tablet computers more powerful than Starfleet datapads and a whole host of software that Star Trek never even dreamed of.

When combined with the previously mentioned reality that our history and the history of Rodenberry’s future look nothing alike – we haven’t fought a third world war yet, for example – the factors that made Star Trek relevant for so long were starting to slip away. Timeliness was abandoned in Deep Space NineVoyager was the last hurrah of futuristic technology. Something had to be done.

The franchise had a couple of options. It could jump forward in time once again, moving the story forward and introducing a bunch of new technological concepts to keep the futuristic feel fresh. That was risky as there was a number of speculative elements in Star Trek already and each such element added moved the stories closer and closer to space fantasy rather than science fiction. The other alternative was to turn backwards and play with simpler concepts and add some commentary about why the Federation we knew and loved looked so different than what we would expect based on what we see today.

Star Trek: Enterprise opted to try both. In many ways, the show was a prequel to Kirk’s era, showing how humanity’s space exploration force became the lynchpin of an interstellar alliance that would shape the course of a quadrant for generations to come. At the same time it introduced a concept interesting in theory but failed in execution – the temporal cold war, where people from times after Picard, Sisko and Janeway tried to meddle in the past or prevent said meddling. (Voyager played in this space as well when 29th century timecops showed up every now and then, but the idea of organized malicious elements at work was entirely an Enterprise creation.)

This incarnation of Star Trek revolved around the Enterprise NX-01, humanity’s first Warp 5 starship, first deep space starship and first legendary starship. While the show would make several very questionable decisions in the first season, including devoting some ten minutes of screen time to the ship’s crew answering questions for an elementary school class on Earth as a way to impart totally unnecessary information about how the ship works, it still did an excellent job showing us a possible transition point between our present and Rodenberry’s future. Most of the past that hasn’t happened, like the Eugenics Wars, is glossed over and an emphasis is put on exploring the changes First Contact with the Vulcans had on Earth and how Vulcans have been changed by humanity in turn. It’s not the most timely cultural commentary but it is still cultural commentary and, especially after the more ham handed attempts late DS9 and Voyager indulged in it was nice to see a certain degree of subtlety restored to the franchise.

Enterprise would also experiment with longform storytelling by turning its entire third season into a single story arc, an experiment that had some good and some bad in it. The best came in the form of Degra, a very balanced and interesting antagonist turned ally, and the multi episode run where the Enterprise was pounded by enemies and left adrift, limping on barely functioning systems for five or six episodes. The worst came in the rather lackluster execution of the Sphere Builders, which were never explored to my satisfaction, and Commander Dolim, a lackluster, cookie cutter villain if ever there was one.

The fourth season kicked off by ending the frustrating and very unsatisfying temporal cold war story and then proceeded to go on one of the longest runs of high quality scifi story telling in the franchise. In truth, while Enterprise is pretty maligned in the fanbase, if the fourth season had been the first it might be remembered as the franchise’s perfect incarnation. Sadly, Enterprise was on the ropes by that point and even that excellent run couldn’t save it. Enterprise wasn’t renewed for a fifth season and turned in a very disappointing series finale, “These are the Voyages…” While the idea of framing the end of the Enterprise’s career through the eyes of Will Riker looking back via a historical holodeck program gave the episode a great feeling of continuity, the actual story Riker frames is pretty pedestrian. And the climax of the episode features the senseless death of one of the show’s best characters, so it all ends in a pretty sad way. Although hearing three different captains of three different Enterprises speak the classic Star Trek voice over is a moment that will give you chills…

Characterwise Enterprise is fairly typical. While Captain Archer, T’Pal and Tripp form a triad similar to the classic Kirk, Spock, McCoy group other members of the crew get substantial character development in the show, particularly Comm officer Hoshi Sato and Conn officer Travis Mayweather. And no starship is worth its salt without a good doctor, so we get Doctor Phlox. Protecting them all from the dangers of deep space is Armory officer Malcom Reed. After the many and shifting roles played by aliens, holograms and shapeshifters over the last two entries in the franchise the crew feels almost pedestrian.

In honesty, there’s nothing wrong with this. The unusual circumstances that led to Deep Space Nine and Voyager having unorthodox crew compliments are not present on Enterprise so it makes sense for the crew to be straightforward. And T’Pal and Phlox are aliens, in fact Phlox is Denoblian, making for an entirely new entry into the show’s cannon. Unfortunately, there are no truly outstanding characters among the core crew of this Star Trek run.

This isn’t the fault of the actors, who rival the NextGen and DS9 casts for personal charisma, but rather the character writing. The only really accessible characters on the show are Tripp and Mayweather, both of whom represent the kind of salt of the earth, workingman characters that we don’t really see in Star Trek often. They have optimism and skills but they also have some street smarts and they take the dangers of the galaxy seriously.

Captain Archer has some interesting quirks, and his slowly going from hating what he views as the Vulcans holding humanity back to standing in the same place for other, less advanced aliens they meet along the way is a good character arc. In fact, in the hands of better writers he could have been the best Starfleet captain in the franchise. He’s less high strung than Kirk or Janeway, not as likely to fly off the handle, less preachy than Picard, not given to speeches unless they’re part of his job, he is almost as good a mentor as Sisko, holding together a ship and crew that was not as prepared for deep space as you might hope. He even has a favorite sport (water polo) and a pet dog. Scott Bakula has that happy gift of exuding charm and goodwill even when he’s just sitting and listening and his acting makes Archer come alive even in the simple act of eating with his crew. Unfortunately, Enterprise developed into a show more about setting in motion things to come than exploring the characters on hand at the time, and little of the potential these characters had was mined.

However, there are two other characters, outside the crew, that bear mentioning. The first is Commander Shran. If it was just Jeffrey Combs back on Trek again it would have been nice but unremarkable – they could have just let him reprise his role as a Ferengi and had done with it if all they wanted was a throwback to previous series. But Shran presents us with a very deep, complex character who has to be both ally and enemy to Archer. Though Shran starts as an enemy Archer’s sense of fair play quickly wins Shran over to the position of wishing to be an ally – except their governments and alliances don’t always make that practical. It’s nice to see Shran and Archer struggle at trust, freindship and eventually even mutual aid as the story goes on.

The other character is Doctor Arik Soong. Again, this could have just been a chance to get Brent Spiner on the set again. But Arik is such a wonderful, complex character, struggling against his society for a dream of improving it, and instead driving it towards war and destruction. Soong is a driven man, blinded by his own hubris, but still driven by a deep and abiding love for people and a desire to improve their lives. Arik Soong could have been a boring caricature like Dolim if written badly, he could have been a flat and unconvincing sideshow if played by a less formidable actor than Spiner. But the pieces come together for the few episodes he’s around and make for one of the best character studies in any Star Trek series, ever. The franchise has no character quite as complex, outside of perhaps Dukat. If you can overlook that Pah Wraith nonsense in season seven. Sadly, that kind of deep character writing rarely surfaced among the main cast, which it really should have.

Enterprise has the feel of a smaller, intimate gathering after the main event has wound down. It has none of the grand scope of Voyager or Deep Space Nine. It wanted to go back to basics, it wanted to enrapture us in the concept once again, but this time in a deeper and more personal way. The captain’s table, where Archer would eat with his senior officers in an attempt to know them and the workings of his ship better, is very much the venue for the show. It defines not only the very personal way the characters interact with each other but the way the show tries to interact with us. That such personal contact might not be the best fit for a high concept scifi show is a drawback, and ultimately probably what brought the show to an end.

But before that Enterprise would air some really killer episodes. A handful of noteworthy episodes include “Broken Bow” Parts 1 and 2, “Shuttlepod One”, “Shadows of P’Jem”, “Dawn”, “Cease Fire”, “Regeneration”, “Proving Ground”, “E2”, “Home”,  “Observer Effect” and “United”.

“The Andorian Incident” marks the beginning of the strange friendship between Shran and Archer. It’s also a pretty intense hostage standoff with Archer’s crew struggling to formulate a rescue around an important cultural icon. It also marks a deeper understanding of the Vulcan culture at this time, how it annoyed Archer and what impacts Vulcans and Archer would have on each other. While any episode with Shran was pretty good, this is one of the best, and where everything starts.

Along the lines of first meetings, “Carbon Creek” tells the real story of Vulcan and Human first contact through the eyes of T’Pol’s grandmother, who she claims landed in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1950s after an accident caused their ship to crash. If true, it’s an interesting glance into the past and a great high concept scifi story. If it’s a tall tale it’s an equally interesting glance into the mind of Star Trek’s most complicated Vulcan character. Either way, the episode is well worth the watching.

“The Catwalk” pushes the idea of more intimate storytelling Enterprise espoused to the furthest degree when it packed the whole crew into cramped quarters to weather out a radiation storm. In addition to showing us how a crew might react to such confinement it adds the twist of an alien search party stumbling across the ship during the storm, forcing Archer and company to contend with opponents not only more advanced than them but better suited to the environment. It’s both funny and suspenseful.

While more than one or two episodes, “Borderland”, “Cold Station 12” and “Augments” do all make for something that feels like a single story. This is the arc that brings Arik Soong into the story, which would be enough to warrant a mention. But it also sets up a bunch of other Star Trek concepts that other series explored, like smooth forehead Klingons (expanded even further in other episodes), the Eugenics War and genetically enhanced humans and, of course, Data. These three episodes were probably the apex of storytelling in this incarnation. But there’s one other pair of episodes that bears mentioning.

I’ve said that I don’t really care for what’s been done with the mirror universe. But “A Mirror Darkly” Parts 1 and 2 may be the best take on the concept there’s been. Rather than emphasizing the way characters react when pulled into this mirror universe, the show throws the “standard” timeline out the window entirely, to the point where the show even has a new opening emphasizing the dark nature of this universe, and just shows us what Archer’s crew is doing in this timeline. While nothing you see dispels the notion that any society run by totalitarians of that caliber would implode in months, if not weeks, it did serve as an entertaining and very well produced look into a fan favorite world before the end of the franchise for the foreseeable future. It was a good pair of episodes and it sealed a couple of plot holes from The Original Series that people had always wondered about.

In the end, Enterprise gets a lot of flack. Honestly, it could have been just as good as Deep Space Nine or The Original Series if it had premiered a few years earlier. But the truth is that the changes in the surrounding culture were against it, and may be against any further continuation of the Star Trek IP. The underlying concepts are still strong but the well-trod lore and feel of the franchise may stand in the way of making something that resonates with our culture as futuristic and adventuresome. That doesn’t mean Enterprise was a bad show. Far from it. It was entertaining enough in the time it ran, and it left us with a promise, which I still hope to see fulfilled. As Archer turned his ship towards space dock, he speculated it wouldn’t be long before another ship took up the name Enterprise. We’ve waited thirteen years to see it happen. Hopefully we won’t wait many more.

But whether they carry the name or not, Gene Rodenberry’s legacy lives on, and, in fact, is spreading. Join me next week as we wrap up this crazy retrospective with a look at where the Spirit of Trek has gone in the last few years, and where it may go in the future.

Star Trek: The Long Road Home

In January of 1995 the fourth installment of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek franchise started out on what could have been the franchise’s greatest installment. The idea was ripe with promise but, by the end of its run, Star Trek: Voyager would prove great ideas don’t always translate to great shows. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Voyager for what it was. But it could have been more and some of us will always wonder at what could have been.

Voyager started by throwing a lot of the playbook out the window. The starship Voyager wasn’t just a ship on a mission of exploration, it was a ship lost in space. A series of events left it on the opposite end of the galaxy from Earth, with an eighty year trip home in front of it. Captain Janeway would have none of the prestige of the Federation’s name to back her or the threat of Starfleet reprisals to deter danger. No one in that sector of space knew what a human was, much less whether their government was worthy of respect. Gone also was any attempt at relevance to the current political situation – it didn’t even exist in slight nods like we saw in DS9 with the Maquis or the Cardassian occupation. The idea was to bring back the hard driving captain, a la Kirk, and the danger of the unknown and surprising.

With DS9 on route to the Dominion War and a bruising, exploration free future Voyager was something the franchise badly needed. It sought to keep Rodenberry’s dream alive while presenting us with new and exciting vistas and cultures for the franchise to explore. It succeeded only in part.

The first two or three seasons of Voyager present us with a section of the galaxy that looks an awful lot like home. There are analogs to the Klingon in the Kazon and the Ferengi in the Talaxians – and that’s just in the first episode. We even see analogs to the ancient Iconians later on in the series. If the hope was to take us to a new and fresh section of the galaxy it sure started off feeling a bit old and stale. But there were new cultures and cool new ships and new planets and new problems and Voyager tackled them all with vim and gusto in spite of its rocky start. That part was fine.

What was less fine was the attempt to shoe horn in some nonsensical interpersonal squabbling in the form of the Maquis. You see, Voyager was not the only ship stranded in the Delta Quadrant. The Caretaker, a very powerful alien who brought them to the Quadrant, had pulled in many different ships and one of them belonged to the terrorist group Voyager had been chasing. The idea was to combine these two groups and let personal conflict erupt. This was a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, the Maquis were all Federation colonists or former Starfleet officers estranged from their government by a peace deal with the Cardassians. They had very few philosophical or moral differences from Starfleet – the conflict arose almost entirely from differences to political circumstances that, once both groups were a galaxy away from home, no longer existed. As a result there were only a few avenues for good story conflicts to explore without venturing into the realm of the truly ridiculous. Once they were all mined out the idea was dropped and Voyager functioned as a Starfleet ship for the rest of the series. The idea of two crews with shared goals but fundamental differences in morals or methods that made working together hard would be explored again, but much better, in the episodes “Equinix I & II”.

But the biggest misstep in Voyager was the Caretaker itself. Not it’s inclusion, but discarding it so quickly. The Star Trek universe has a number of mostly forgotten civilizations that travelled huge swaths of its galaxy long before humanity took to the stars. The Preservers and Iconians both controlled large chunks of the galaxy, according to the lore. But no take on the franchise has ever explored them in depth. It would have been nice to see the Caretaker tied to one of these civilizations – or perhaps even a new one – that Voyager could have encountered on a recurring basis as it made its way home. The Voyager crew as travelling interstellar archeologists would have been fun. As it was, Voyager only encountered one other Caretaker in a fairly forgettable episode. While Enterprise would play with the idea of a powerful civilization scattering artifacts throughout a section of space in its third season even the Sphere Builders wouldn’t receive that much in the way of development. It was a missed opportunity that could have really made Voyager distinct, possibly even a standout in the latter half of the franchise’s life. Alas, it was not to be. The Caretaker served as a MacGuffin to get the crew away from the Federation and was promptly killed off and ceased to be of much relevance.

Voyager did expand on the lore by adding three new antagonistic species that were interesting and fun. The Hirojen are basically the Predators for the Star Trek universe and seeing how Janeway dealt with them was pretty interesting. The Malon introduced interstellar junk haulers to the clean and tidy Rodenberry future and added a very unique spin to a number of situations that could have been very generic. And Species 8472, also known as the Undine in later spinoffs, added a new juggernaut race to the galaxy for humanity to worry about.

The showrunners also decided to bring back two big NextGen antagonists in a totally new way. The Borg returned in a big way, acting as a recurring obstacle from season 4 onwards. Everyone knew this was coming, Picard met the Borg in the Delta Quadrant after all, but the necessity of dealing with the Borg on a semi-regular basis and the fact that the series couldn’t ever let Voyager get caught stole some force from the menace of the implacable Borg. Add in the fact that the writers applied the (aptly named) Worf Effect to them in order to build up Species 8472 and the fact that we tend not to fear things we understand (rightly or not) and the Borg overall lost some of their sense of danger as the show went on.

Q also made a return, this time dealing with the internal politics of his race and the problems that come with phenomenal cosmic power. While the change to the way the Borg were portrayed probably had to come if they were to continue being an antagonist in Star Trek, the shift in Q was not necessary, needed or even very good. Once he was no longer the face of the impersonal weight of the universe bearing down on humanity he ceased to be a useful antagonist and just became a cosmic powered nuisance. It was an interesting line of thought but ultimately the story itself went nowhere.

In short, it seems as if the showrunners behind Voyager weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go. The show has no strong theme, and thus no quintessential venue. It feels much like actual exploration, in fact. We saw many things, and they were interesting. But they didn’t always connect.

After Next Generation and Deep Space Nine it may have been inevitable that the cast on Voyager wasn’t quite as strong as we were used to. They were all fine actors and had many good scripts to work with but nothing we ever saw from them equals the incredible talents of a Spiner or Stewart or the longform character development of Nog or Odo. Never the less, Kate Mulgrew as Janeway, Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine and Robert Picardo – probably the best actor in the series – as the EMH did get to show a broad range of acting talent that was greatly appreciated.

It helped that these three characters were the most interesting on the ship as well. Star Trek has a history of putting characters who struggle with humanity in the show to help push certain kinds of stories along. Seven serves that role from her appearance at the end of season four until the show’s conclusion. It’s interesting to see Star Trek, a franchise normally very vested in multiculturalism and leaving things as they are, push so hard into the realm of cultural deprogramming and reindoctrination. And make no mistake – that’s what Voyager’s treatment of Seven amounts to. In the process the show makes a sound argument for why such actions might sometimes be necessary, high minded ideals not withstanding.

The Emergency Medical Hologram, a holographic emergency stopgap that the crew activates when their living doctor is killed, is another interesting take on the “what is humanity?” shtick scifi in general and Star Trek specifically loves so much. He struggles with the very narrow scope his original programming gave him and getting the crew to think of him as a person, rather than a convenient tool. Unlike many of the characters chasing humanity in the franchise’s history, the Doctor does not have a flat, emotionless disposition. Rather, he’s abrasive and overconfident, saddled with his creator’s personality – not something particularly conductive to his job. He also struggles early on with being confined to specific parts of the ship, another kind of handicap the show has never explored before.

Last but not least comes the captain herself. I’ve always found it interesting that, even among fans who don’t consider Deep Space Nine the best incarnation of the franchise, Benjamin Sisko is considered the most human Star Trek captain. This is not at all intuitive. Both Kirk and Picard are larger than life figures, to be sure, and little time is spent with their flaws. Sure, Sisko had a hobby in his baseball obsession and a son, then later a steady girlfriend and a wife. And those were very appealing parts of his character. He also made morally questionable choices. But he tended to get away with his lapses of character without consequence, or even much in the way of guilt, which hardly qualifies as believably human in my book. Then there’s the whole religious icon thing and the Sisko as the everyman captain starts to fall apart. Especially as there’s two other contenders for the title.

Captain Archer of the NX-01 Enterprise was a much more humble man, with prejudices and moral failings. He has a hobby and deals with a fair amount of romance, although never a long term relationship. But, as you may guess given the subject of this post, I don’t give the title to him.

You see, as a captain Kathryn Janeway is a bit of a trainwreck.

Other than Kirk, no captain shows quite the same level of disdain for Starfleet regulations as Janeway. For the good captain, survival frequently came first. She wasn’t afraid to meddle in local affairs or skirt the Prime Directive to get the crew closer to home. She was also remarkably vengeful for a 24th century starship commander, occasionally persecuting vendettas against certain aliens – or even Starfleet commanders – to a degree that worried her crew. She came from a scientific background, rather than a pure command career, and her priorities were often towards the immediate care and safety of her crew rather than long term principles. But most of all, Janeway’s moral decisions are in constant doubt. While most captains made one or two difficult calls they tended to get left behind very quickly.

Janeway’s most questionable moral decision was the one that permanently stranded her crew in the Delta Quadrant to begin with. She could have gone home, you see, but that would have required leaving the Caretaker’s technology in the hands of very brutal and amoral people. Staying in the Delta Quadrant was the only way to ensure the Caretaker’s array was destroyed without any part of it falling into the wrong hands. The very harsh consequences of that decision dog her every step of the seven year journey home. That kind of heavy weight is something truly human, and it makes Janeway interesting and complex – even if I wouldn’t exactly want her to command my starship.

Like the other two shows of its era, Voyager ran for seven seasons and produced its fair share of good episodes. It also had some of the weakest episodes of the franchise, particularly in the first season or two. But even so, the good outweighed the bad. Episodes to watch include “Message in a Bottle”, “Future’s End” Parts 1 and 2, “Relativity”, “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”, “The Year of Hell”, “Living Witness” and “Deadlock”.

“Blink of an Eye” is a masterpiece of high concept scifi like the franchise hadn’t seen for a while. It features Voyager getting caught in orbit around a planet with a different subjective time than the rest of the universe. A year passes on the planet for every minute that the crew lives in orbit. They watch civilizations rise and fall from above and, in turn, those below look up and wonder what the light in the sky means and what the people there might want with them. The concept was so good that it would get reused again in the first season of The Orville.

On the other hand, “Life Line” tells a very personal story about the Emergency Medical Hologram visiting his creator, legendary hologram engineer Louis Zimmerman. The clash of two such very similar, overinflated personalities is a tour de force, fun and witty but still emotional enough to resonate. It features the return of Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi, veterans of The Next Generation as well used guest stars. It also features a masterpiece of acting by Robert Picardo, who plays opposite himself in most of the important scenes. Star Trek acting doesn’t get better than this unless Spiner and Stewert are on the screen.

“Timeless” and “Endgame” Parts 1 and 2 both feature the same basic premise. Members of the Voyager crew get back to Earth but try and bend time so that the dead left behind can make it home too. “Timeless” features Garrett Wang’s best performance as Ensign Kim in the series and deals in the kind of classic, high concept scifi that made Star Trek great. “Endgame” is the series finale and, in spite of the similar premise, has several key differences. For starters, this time the gambit works and Voayger gets home. Also, it features Janeway as the viewpoint character rather than Kim, and it goes to great pains to wrap up most of the loose plot threads the show left behind, making it a slightly messier – but still satisfying – tale. In a nice bit of self reference, future Harry has a ship commanded by Geordi LaForge show up to stop his time travel attempt in “Timeless” then, in “Endgame”, another future Harry shows up as Janeway starts her Both stories are worth watching for Trek fans, but “Timeless” will probably suit the general scifi viewer not interested in watching the whole series better.

The Borg always had a limited lifespan, as mentioned before, and I think the showrunners had realized that. As I said two weeks ago, the decline of the Borg really started with “I, Borg” back in NextGen but they still had some legs left in them. “Scorpion” Parts 1 and 2 sent them fully into decline with a bang, introducing a new race that even the Borg couldn’t handle and adding Seven of Nine to Voyager’s crew. This is a pretty light episode in terms of scifi but it’s solid space opera with good production values for TV of its era, and the decision making in the episode is both tense and fun to watch, even if you guess what’s coming before it happens. Seven would become a good window into the new Borg status quo, allowing us to discover all the cracks and weaknesses the Borg always had as she did, and coming to understand how an unstoppable force can actually be a stampeding herd one step ahead of disaster.

“Equinox” Parts 1 and 2 is the epitome of what many people wanted Voyager to be – two crews, each with supposedly shared values, but one turned sour by years of merciless peril. When the Equinox and Voyager meet it seems like a bright spot in a long string of trials – for both crews. But the revelation that the Equinox was under constant attack because the crew had decided to deal in genocide in a desperate bid to get home… that was a horror in itself. The punishing conflict that results is tense and marvelously acted. “Equinox” is Voyager at its best – but unlike many it’s not what I feel the entire show should have been. Still, a very clever scifi plot and a great piece of drama as well.

Voyager went off the air in 2001 with the good ship and its crew home at last. It was the last offering of the franchise’s heyday, a great concept that wasn’t everything anyone wanted from it but still acquitted itself well, packing new ships, races and spacial phenomenon into Star Trek lore with reckless abandon. It probably has the smallest enthusiastic fanbase of any entry in the franchise, at least before Discovery, but ideas introduced in it were staples of the expanded lore during the long, twelve year drought between the end of Enterprise and the beginning of Discovery. The Delta quadrant would be better realized as a location than the Gamma quadrant, and the seeds of technological innovation Voyager brought back with her would spin off into several novels. However, even with all that potential, the decisions made at the beginning of the next installment of the franchise showed how Star Trek was beginning to creak under its own weight…