“Well, it isn’t our dapper dark knight” : 10 intriguing Batman stories that don’t feature the Caped Crusader

Batman has long been one of DC’s most enduring heroes and one of the most recognizable characters in American pop culture. He’s also one that is ripe for examination, parody and re-appropriation. What makes this more and more interesting is the way in which different authors have used the Batman archetype to explore different universes and to examine the character in ways that he hadn’t been looked at in his own universe. Some great books even manage to spin the character into someone that could be interpreted far differently than the hero we all know.

1. “Astro City: Dark Age Part 1”

In Kurt Busiek’s epic retelling of the way that comics evolved from the late silver age into the hyper violent and complex bronze age, Street Angel plays a moderately small role. A vigilante battling crime in the streets while the more powerful heroes battle against the intergalactic enemies that are taking on the city, Street Angel is hoping to keep his moral code against killing as the city descends into chaos but as Silver Agent begins to make the difficult choices, Angel has to face that the pain he brings criminals may not be worse than killing them. When we last see him, he’s sitting in his misery, not knowing whether his future in Astro City will be an accommodating one.

2.  “The Duck Knight Returns” – Darkwing Duck

Frank Miller is may be my favorite comics writer ever but he’s really easy to mock. If you know his best known work, “The Dark Knight Returns,” you’re going to have a lot of fun with Darkwing Duck’s take on the story. When he finds his city completely under the control of publicly traded organizations with businesses even controlling the police force. He’s driven to put back on the cape and sombrero and bring justice to St. Canard. Making everything more fun, classic “DuckTales” characters  contribute to the Darkwing Duck adventure in major ways.

3.  “Revenge is a Dish Best Served Three Times” – The Simpsons

Bartman has been aluded to many, many times in “The Simpsons” but in a direct parody of “Batman Begins,” Bart tells a story about how awesome and useful revenge can be. It might be worth watching just to see Snake taking the role of Joe Chill.

4. “Showdown” – Batman: The Animated Series 

Batman and Robin both show up briefly in “Showdown” but most of the episode is a flashback about one of Ras al Ghul’s sons being defeated by one of Old Gotham’s best killers, Jonah Hex. Its an invigorating episode, filled with great fights, an awesome plot and a great peak at the relationship and respect that Batman and Ras have for each other, despite being enemies.

5. “Asro City: Confession”

Busiek’s written Batman for the Justice League as well as in his exceptional “Trinity” series but its clear that he has a soft spot for the violent hero that could face down anything and anyone. “Confession” stars Astro City’s other Dark Knight analogue, the Confessor, and is told through the voice of his sidekick, describing a series of slayings in Shadow Hill, a bizarre storyline featuring alien invasions and corrupt government officials and a hero in black who’s controlled by his own moral code as well as struggling with who he is. This is less of an analysis of Batman and more of an engaging what-if story, but it does delve into the mindset of the teenage Robins who give the dark knight their allegiance.

6. “Holy Terror”

By no means is “Holy Terror” a good book. Its misogynistic, utterly dark, misanthropic, overly violent, overly masculine and jingoistic. Frank Miller’s mess of a 9/11 graphic novel was meant to be about Batman’s hunt for Osama bin Laden but ended up being a book about dull Batman and Catwoman analogues shooting terrorists. On its own, “Holy Terror” is an utter failure but it does almost make one consider what it was that Miller was really intending to communicate in the thematically similar “The Dark Knight Returns.”

7. “Battle for the Cowl”

Sadly, Grant Morrison will probably be best remembered for killing Batman in the frankly, pretty terrible “Final Crisis.” That being said, he was able to craft much more engaging stories about the Dark Knight, namely “Batman Incorporated” but “Battle for the Cowl” is an enormously engaging series about the future of Gotham. As Bruce Wayne battles his way through time, the Bat-family engages in a city encompassing war for who will wear the cowl. Morrison is obsessed with Robin and he shows it here, developing Dick Grayson into an adult hero as well as showing the future role that Damian would play in fighting for the future of the city. Much like Jeph Loeb’s “Dark Victory,” “Battle for the Cowl” explores the ways in which the Robins have to accept power and what the future of holding this power can hold.

8. “Kabuki: Circle of Blood”

Perhaps the best comic series of the ’90s, David Mack’s “Kabuki” is an enthralling fusion of neo-noir, international espionage, World War II fiction, metatextual analysis and “Alice in Wonderland” imagery. The story, initially a battle between the agents of the Noh and a terrorist group, the narrative blooms into a story about Japanese trauma, living up to the memories of a parent and leaving a better world than the one you came into. The story of Ukiko, a child orphaned after her mother’s murder, and her eventual transformation into the assassin Kabuki borrows heavily from the Batman mythos and repeated uses of Alice and Wonderland imagery, particularly borrowed from Grant Morrison’s “Serious House on Serious Earth,” ties Kabuki very strongly to a certain Western hero. However, the way that Mack grounds his hero in real world trauma and extistential angst makes us view both the minds of Bruce Wayne and Batman in a considerably more nuanced and fractured way.

9. “Death of the Goon” – The Goon #39

The list of characters, writers, artists, trends and storylines that are skewered in Eric Powell’s delirious parody issue of superheroes is nearly endless and he manages to mock the Batman/Catwoman relationship mercilessly. In a series of panels where Goon decides to become an interracial street avenger who stops people who realized that “hanging out in an alley would really pay off,” he saves a woman only to go into a long monologue about why he can’t fall in love. Meanwhile, Franky checks “angst ridden monologue” off the list of tropes that need to appear in their superhero issue. Of course, that’s all before Goon and Franky decide to become gay Republican Puerto Rican socialist transvestites from space who believe in Jesus. You know, solely for the media attention.

10. “Sin City: The Hard Goodbye”

After smoking his 400th cigarette of the day and fucking a hooker with a heart of gold, Frank Miller spits on the piss slick floor of his apartment, swallows a mouthfull of whiskey, curses and wonders whether there’s a way he could add more hardcore violence to neo-noir. After “The Dark Knight Returns,” Miller devoted himself to putting even more violence into a story about a man with nothing to live for, trying to save a city that long ago lost its’ soul. This is the Batman that Miller wishes he would have written and it serves as a better companion piece to “Year One” and his other works than “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”

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“It wasn’t good for me either” – 10 decidedly queasy erotic scenes [Mildly NSFW]

Summer movies generally means you’re pretty much in for two things, lots of big explosions and lots of pretty people doing pretty people things. The problem with this, lots of the time, directors don’t exactly know how to balance actors that are used to doing action with scenes where we’re supposed to think they can be loving, caring characters. So, whether its intentional or not, here’s a quick rundown of movie scenes that’ll make you want to enter a dry spell.

1. Love in Zion – “The Matrix Reloaded”

There are few movies that more perfectly represent the bad summer movie sex phenomenon than “The Matrix Reloaded.” As Neo and Trinity sneak away from the dance party, they engage in awkward, grunting groping to the beat of bad ’90s acid house. The real problem here is the way the scene is shot. Most of the time, it looks like the pair are just clinging to one another and the two don’t look that different, making it even more strange and a little off putting. Weirdly, its one of the scenes that stands out the most in the second part of The Matrix trilogy and that’s probably not a good thing.

2. “Which one are you going to have sex with?” – “Eastern Promises”

As Nikolai tries to stay close to to the psychopathic Kirill, they stop by a brothel filled with heroin addled hookers. Kirill mercilessly grinds and licks on the vacant women, swilling vodka and yelling obsenities. Ultimately, he forces Nikolai to take one of the hookers to prove his alleigance to the family, leaving to a intentionally horrifying anal sex scene. Director David Cronenberg has always been interested in the way that nihilistic characters can make any intimate reaction into soulless congress and it’s done masterfully here.

3. Soulless Grinding – “Crash”

Cronenberg plays his hand in “Crash” right away, with several scenes of vacant empty love making in the first 10 minutes. Its all about the way that even when people claim to be at their most open and honest, they hide all their feelings and desires.

4. What time is it? – “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Sidney Lumet’s best’s film in years also opens with a sex scene, although decidedly a bizarre one. As Marissa Tomei and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have sex and plan a vacation to Brazil, viewers are meant to be pondering at one point in the timeline this scene takes place, before the twisting hellish crime spree begins. Instead, viewers are probably just focused on watching Hoffman moving around sluggishly, having sex with Tomei from behind. Sure, we might be supposed to think this but it doesn’t make me less queasy.

5. “Mommy…” – “Blue Velvet”

In David Lynch’s landmark surreal noir, the depraved Frank Booth enters Dorothy’s apartment and interrupts her encounter with Jeffrey. He inhales some sort of gas, dry humps her and engages in some light sadomasochism with his orgasm being a confusing mess of screaming pleasure and unfathomable, murderous rage. Lynch isn’t trying to arrouse by any means. Instead, this is the first look at how dark the film’s protagonist is and how far he’s willing to go to get what he needs.

6. “That bastard!” – “Macgruber

“Macgruber” plays almost everything for a laugh but nothing more than the pair of brutally awkward sex scenes. Both are filled with ridiculous, over-the-top grunting, whining and painfully shot thrusting. The second scene, featuring Will Forte having sex with the ghost of his dead wife on her gravestone. Its shot the same as the previous scene but is done for even more laughs, with Forte showing more pleasure at finding the car that passed him earlier than after sex.

7. Its more about what happens before – “I Know Who Killed Me”

At some point in its development, someone probably thought “I Know Who Killed Me” was an erotic thriller instead of just a borderline incoherent mess. Its memorable for all the wrong reasons but the scene that stands out is an awkward sequence where the Lindsay Lohan doppelgänger has sex with her not-boyfriend, with her prosthetic leg plugged into a wall socket next to them. Things get even more awkward when, post-coitus, she flashes back to her time as a stripper where her finger once was psychically cut off and fell into her glove in a slushy of blood and gore. If that didn’t make sense, watching the movie isn’t really going to help you either.

8. The tip of fame – “8 Mile”

“8 Mile” offers a lot of dubious facts about what the road to fame is like but the strangest is that the height of fame equates to a handjob from a coke addled coworker. As Eminem begins to pick up fans in his already masturbatory semi-autobiographical film, he’s taken into a back room by Brittany Murphy looking her worst for some celebratory handie. Its strange, poorly shot and weirdly inappropriate for a movie that’s trying so desperately to be “hard.”

9. Wait, its about that? – “Sucker Punch”

The entirety of “Sucker Punch” is little more than Zach Snyder’s adolescent sexual fantasies and nowhere is this clearer than in his semi-explanation of Babydoll’s dancing to the fact that she’s being sexually abused in a brothel at the time. Its a gross, hard to watch movie that only gets filthier and harder to watch as you think about it.

10. No butter, please. – “Last Tango in Paris”

Its one of the most infamously unsettling moments of unsettling cinema as Marlon Brando sodomizes Maria Schneider, using butter for lubricant. It’s a disturbing scene, particularly after hearing more and more about the making, in which Schneider was extremely uncomfortable with performing the scene. In a movie that already feels dangerously close to eroticizing sexual assault and rape at times, this scene certainly doesn’t help the overall tone.

Episode 36: “I, Mudd” and Kirk shows off what he learned in Theater 101

I hate Harry Mudd. He isn’t a character that I love to hate, its not a character that I’m supposed to hate and it isn’t that I don’t get him. The fact is that Mudd is such an obnoxious relic and his previous appearance is one of the worst episodes of TOS and definitely the worst episode of the first season.

I didn’t want to watch “I, Mudd,” the scheming turd’s return to the show before his single appearance in the animated series. I knew I was in for another episode of moustasche twirling villainy, really off-putting sexual politics and what I have to assume was intended to be humor. On pretty much all parts, I was right but here, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed. Well, until the final half hour.

After an Android takes over the Enterprise in a sequence that is pretty much the writers just shrugging, Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and Chekov are dragged down to a Class K planet filled with androids. There, Mudd has escaped from his imprisonment, designed a bunch of foxy female androids for dubious purposes and rules in what appears to be a total lack of authority. To make things real awkward and to foreshadow the episode’s conclusion really clearly, he’s even built an android that looks like his abandoned wife for his amusement.

Mudd’s lured Kirk down to the planet in an attempt to steal the ship and finally escape the planet but the androids have other plans. They begin to abandon Mudd on the planet and warp up on the Enterprise, planning to study humanity. Mudd, Kirk and company slowly come up with a plan to get off the planet by, you guessed it, talking the androids into realizing that their actions are illogical.

Up to here, I kind of liked “I, Mudd.” This is a really traditional episode of TOS, with lots of bright colors, really goofy set designs, girls in revealing outfits and hammy overacting. I love this sort of stuff and its what makes Kirk’s time at the helm so memorable and iconic. Sure, Mudd’s unidentifiable accent fades in and out and changes randomly at times but its all something you can ignore.

That all changes as the crew figures out how to breakout. They decide to go with the sort of disreputable idea that humans cannot be happy without being free and decide that the only way to beat out the androids is to show the power of imagination and the way that it can trump logic. It doesn’t make a ton of sense when you think about it and the frolicking and play acting they do in an attempt to overload the Norman model is so confusing, surreal and strange that its hard to figure out how it could possibly do anything.

The final act pretty much feels like watching the worst college improv troupe you can imagine. There’s hand slapping as objects are invisible objects are handed off, a terribly timed baseball routine and entirely too much ridiculous Shakespearean-meets-“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” style deaths to be anything more than the lowest of camp. Its embarrassing and downright painful to watch and what hurts the most is seeing it work in beating back the androids.

Much better is the way that Spock deals with the situation. A simple turn of phrase is all it takes to confuse a pair of androids and incapacitate them, allowing his compatriots to take down the leader. Its artful and smart and exactly what we want to see from Spock.

Much like Mudd’s first appearance, the episode tries to end with a really strong joke and once again, I don’t really know what they were going for. In “I, Mudd,” the rogue is left on the planet to be berated by his android-wives until he can escape. I understand why this is supposed to be funny and ridiculously sexist but I don’t really understand why the writers thought we would think it to be funny. Are we supposed to view Mudd as a cad and pervert who deserves to be berated? Are we supposed to think he’s cheated on his wife by fucking a couple hundred robots? Are we supposed to think its funny just because he was outsmarted by Kirk? Despite all of my complaints, Mudd has never been developed enough as a character, much less a villain, that I feel like he deserves any sort of punishment for his actions.

“I, Mudd” is a lot of what I like about the original run of Star Trek and a lot of what I can’t stand. Its rife with awkward sexual politics, poorly thought out villains and not particularly satisfying resolutions but it has all the color, design and charm that I love. By no means is it a classic, but its a fair entry in a series that always is fun to watch.

Random Thoughts

They actually used  twins for most of the duplicated robots in this episode. That’s neat.

Sulu’s here for all of 30 seconds. I guess the writers wanted more Yakov Smirnov style jokes about Russians.

Shatner does the comedy in this episode particularly well. The scene where everyone says that things aren’t looking good is a lot of fun.

Next Up: “Metamorphosis” teaches us everything we ever wanted to know but were too afraid to ask about the guy who created the warp drive.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 – Boldly Going Where We’ve Already Been and building a universe you could actually stay in.

It’s 1987. Science fiction has had its heyday. “Star Wars” had become the biggest spectacle of the late ’70s and had recreated the summer movie with “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” The Twilight Zone relaunch had brought surreal pseudo-science fiction to the mainstream, for an audience that didn’t care about Cylons and stormtroopers. Battlestar Galactica brought the thrill of Star Wars into a campy TV program with a microscopic budget and a host of mythology, while the 1980 remake flopped but showed a desire for more of that kind of serialized programming. British programming like The Prisoner and decades old Dr. Who serials were becoming somewhat less rare in the States.

Hard, focused science fiction wasn’t the only place that the medium was shaping the cultural landscape. Undeniably creepy robot-girl sitcom Small Wonder had just begun and was receiving critical accolades as well as pulling in crazy ratings. The early ’80s boom of raunch comedies had run its course and producers that still wanted to cash in on the genre had to branch out, leading to films like “Short Circuit” and “Zapped!”

You did not want to be watching this.

Yep, business was booming for science fiction and there was one thing to thank for it. Star Trek: The Original Series had bloomed into a full-blown phenomenon by the time it ended up on syndication after having its budget raped by CBS in the third season. The ’70s ended up being the time for Star Trek to truly bloom into a cult phenomenon, with conventions, an animated series and merchandising out the ass. The fan reaction denied the creation of Roddenberry’s beloved Star Trek: Phase 2, but lead to a few things even better, ideally 4 Star Trek movies. For fans, it was a property that kept giving, with a show that had long since stopped producing new episodes, giving new, deeper, more mature stories, dealing with their characters facing new challenge.

It also led to the second greatest sci-fi film ever.

As any fan of Star Trek would (or should) tell you, they really should have stopped with “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” but this was 1987. We still didn’t know that someone would let Shatner direct a sequel and that would include a Total Recall-esque three-boobed woman, spaceships that were actually God and, sigh, Spock’s brother.

Sure, eventually we had to get to the seventh or eighth worst sci-fi film ever.

Really, it was an issue of money. Production of additional movies were running up against a wall as Nimoy and Shatner were demanding crazy salaries from Paramount for the Star Trek films and the studio’s desire to continue cashing in on the franchise was tempered by that greed. Roddenberry, figuring the only way to continue the franchise on television was a new cast, a new Enterprise and a new final frontier. Hence, Star Trek: The Next Generation was born.

In all its '80s glory.

I’ve debated this many times, but The Next Generation might be the best iteration of Star Trek. That’s not to say it’s my favorite, as I vastly prefer The Original Series and I might even like Deep Space Nine better, but there is an unmistakable sense of quality to the whole series. It’s often whip smart with (mostly) great characters, well developed plots and a universe that was being filled in more fully after every episode. Yeah, it lacks the fun and swashbuckling of the Original Series, but it more than makes up for that with adult storylines, general intelligence and a sense of style that could never have been maintained on Shatner’s Enterprise.

Picking up about 100 years after the conclusion of the Original Series, the world of The Next Generation is vastly different than the last universe we explored. The Federation is a more established and respected force than the one we last saw and their actions are more focused on utopian ideals. Starfleet is helping colonists terraform planets, supporting scientists, solving mysteries and asking questions first before shooting much much later. The galaxy is still a dangerous place, but it’s a very known place. They know what they’re dealing with and they’ve made peace with it. Former enemies are welcomed, human colonization of the outer rim is constant and respect for everyone has now become part of the fold.

We're cool with these guys now.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the bridge of the new Enterprise. Where once, Kirk was elevated over his helmsman, while his scientists, communication experts and guests flanked him, now the captain sits in the center, flanked by his first officer and an adviser, while security and other assorted personnel stands above him on the com. It’s a place where everyone is respected, where the captain isn’t so much in charge, as a respected leader. He’s not shooting first; he’s gathering opinions, making decisions, asking for research and finally making a move. This isn’t a place for cowboys, it’s a place for the Magellan of the stars.

That's right, make Troi stand.

In other words, it’s a place for Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the new, steadfast Prime Directive following commanding officer of the brand new top of the line Enterprise. His adviser, Councilor Deanna Troi, a half-Betazoid telepath who serves as the ship’s psychiatrist, and his security chief Tasha Yar, a violent and disturbed human from a dangerous border world, joins him. His tactical officer Worf, a Klingon raised away from the Empire, advises on combat situations. Geordi, a blind human who can see with the aid of a visor that leaves him in constant pain, and Data, an android who lacks the ability to feel emotions but has an encyclopedic knowledge of the galaxy, serve as the helmsman. By the end of the first episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” we’re also joined by first officer William Riker, a womanizing hotshot in the Kirk mold, Doctor Beverly Crusher, a grieving widow with some unresolved issues with Picard, and her son Wesley, a genius Mary Sue who quickly is put on the Chosen-One story arc.

It’s a large crew with considerably more characterization in the first episode than many of the background players in the Original Series ever received. One of the many nice things that the pilot of The Next Generation did immediately was treat all of these characters with a base amount of respect without paying too much attention to any of them really. It’s an ensemble show, and the first season mostly tries to give each character a chance to shine, although Tasha Yar takes the shaft a little more than the rest (more on that later).

The pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint” doesn’t do anything too special. It introduces us to the new crew, the holodeck, the fact that the ship can apparently detach the saucer and the base and Q, an extradimensional god-like being who essentially plays the role of a playful Metron, judging humanity and casting scorn upon the race’s history of barbarianism. He puts Picard and the crew on trial, forcing them to prove that they have evolved with a challenge. The challenge itself is something of a mess and the episode itself is thoroughly unremarkable. It’s nice that Deforest Kelley makes a guest appearance as an aging Dr. McCoy, which helps bridge the gap between the two series and the stuff with the trial and Q is interesting enough, if fairly familiar. There’s an innocent alien to be released and a people that have to be taught of their misdeeds. For a change, the Prime Directive is brought up right away and we’re introduced to Picard as someone who needs the rules and the organization that Starfleet can give him. He beats Q on the god’s terms and is able to save his crew. It’s a bit long, being an hour and a half, but it works well enough.

Some of it doesn't.

There’s no reason to really run through the whole first season, as interesting as it is, but it’s worth examining what makes The Next Generation different from the other series and the parts that do and don’t work. The first season of the show is generally regarded as pretty terrible and it would be pretty hard to argue with that assertion. The Next Generation had a lot of growing pains to get through before it could become something interesting, but there are a few truly great moments. It’s just that the terrible moments are a lot funnier.

One of the things that really sets the first season apart is the way that the writers almost crafted an episode around every character. Each one more or less gets a chance to further introduce themselves to us as people and it does bring a great sense of community but the flaws show up immediately with the characters that just aren’t that compelling, namely Wesley and Yar.

Wesley’s a Mary Sue of the highest order. He always somehow knows more than all the other characters, sees where their enemies are a few steps ahead and tries to show that he can save everyone despite being shut down by the grown-ups. This isn’t interesting, it’s obnoxious. Wesley’s showcase, “When the Bough Breaks,” features the wunderkind leading children in a form of passive resistance against their radioactive kidnappers and stonewalls his enemies until Picard can rescue them. It’s a moment where we could see what the character could have become, a bright, driven kid who has to do what he can to overcome the challenges he faces. Instead, he’s usually more like the character that we see in “Where No One Has Gone Before” and “Datalore,” where he notices something about a stranger and realizes the truth of what the crew has to do to escape their fate. He’s not trained in how to run or repair a star ship and we’re pretty much just told that he’s a genius and the next thing you know, he’s saving everyone’s life. It’s disappointing more than anything else.

Yar is a flawed character in an entirely different way and that has to do with Dennise Crosby than anything else. She’s not a great actress working with a character that doesn’t ever get a lot to do. She talks about the “rape-gangs” of her home planet, and the one flashback we have to see that society is too short and a little too goofy to be taken as a threat. She says “rape-gangs” a lot and it just ends up being a little funnier than it really should be. Without definition, explanation or the appropriate emotional response from Crosby or anyone around her, we can’t take her seriously. She ends up being way too emotional and flighty which aren’t great traits for a security chief to have and it often leads her into situations that we have trouble believing particularly the cringe worthy scene in “The Naked Now” when she has sex with Data. The one scene we finally have with her where we can look at her as a character is in “The Skin of Evil” when she talks to Worf about an upcoming martial arts tournament, but by that time it’s way too late. Her future on the show was already sealed (more on that again later).

"Hurry, the rape-gang's a comin'!"

The lack of tonal consistency with Tasha Yar’s backstory leads to another one of the more prominent problems with The Next Generation, a subject that The Original Series very rarely ever touched on directly, which is the subject of sex. There is so much fucking sex in the first season of The Next Generation and it is never treated with any sort of consistency. There’s the aforementioned sex scene between Data and Yar and it’s played deadly serious, but it’s such a bizarre plot point. They screw because Tasha wants to, I guess, and then the plot point just disappears. Data has very little response in the climax of “Skin of Evil” and Tasha’s message to him could never be read to accommodate a sexual subtext. The whole thing just sits with the audience while the characters pretend it didn’t exist.

In other places, we have sexed up societies that basically ask a 14 year old if he wants to screw (“Justice”), vaginal hegemonies that bring Riker in as part of a harem (“Angel One”), a world where women are bought as property controllers or can just be kidnapped (“Code of Honor”), arranged marriages and telepathic women who think everyone wants to screw them (“Haven”), flirty jazz loving hologram whores (“11001001”) and French estranged girlfriends who might want to get back together (“We’ll Always Have Paris”). It’s a little much for what is ostensibly an all ages sci-fi show and worse, it’s played in a way that doesn’t treat sex as anything special. It’s aberrant and weird in all the wrong ways. For once, I’m wishing for Kirk’s blatant macking on every woman he comes across.

It’s not all just awkward fucking and women issues though. The Next Generation introduces several new races while sort of forgetting about others. We get a brand new look at Federation/Klingon relations the resistance that the former has at losing some of their cultural history. The Vulcans are pretty much out of the picture, with just one showing up in the dinner scene of “Conspiracy.” The Romulans make a very brief appearance in “The Neutral Zone,” reasserting themselves as the foremost enemy of the Federation and peace in the Alpha Quadrant. The new races are primarily the telepathic Betazoids, who we see only a brief introduction to in “Haven” with the unbelievably obnoxious Lwaxana Troi.

We are still not cool with these guys.

We also meet the dangerous capitalists, the Ferengi, a species of grotesque traders and pirates obsessed with their bottom line and potential avenues of profit. Their two episodes, “The Last Outpost” and “The Battle” don’t treat them particularly well, essentially labeling them as incompetent moneygrubbers and cowards. In a series that has always treated alien races with some modicum of respect, it’s disappointing to be introduced to a new race that is cut down to size in both of their appearances this early in the show.

They're new, they're terrible and you will not give two shits about them.

The last big difference to mention between The Original Series and The Next Generation is the beginning of serialization. By the 1980s, even sitcoms were beginning to integrate continuing story lines and Star Trek’s newest integration was no exception. We have a continuing storyline that more or less helps to flesh out Picard as a character and as a captain, from his early obsessions (“The Big Goodbye”), applying to gain entrance into Starfleet (“Coming of Age”), to his days immediately after leaving the Academy (We’ll Always Have Paris”) to his early heroic action facing his ship (“The Battle”) and all of this finally lets us understand how Picard became the responsible and trustworthy captain that he’s become.

We get a brief serialized element late in the season about the takeover of Starfleet by a hostile outside force. In “Coming of Age,” several Starfleet personnel perform an inspection on the Enterprise, calling many of Picard’s decisions into questions and dong some investigation into the crew’s past adventures. They eventually suggest that the inspections is to see if Picard has become compromised by a part of a Federation wide conspiracy and that many members of the upper echelon may have been compromised. The threat of a takeover looms over the rest of the season and it finds completion in “Conspiracy,” when the Federation is compromised by alien neuro-parasites, featuring a beautiful worm eating climax and a head explosion/chair fusing that feels like a beautiful combination of “Scanners” and “Tokyo Gore Police”. It’s a great, tense, gory episode that is ruined a little by some strange direction and one of the weirdest fight scenes of the franchise, but it beyond deserved to be the season finale.

This action figure molded to a chair cannot express how cool this scene is.

The last thing that really needs mentioning is one of the shows most maligned episodes, “Skin of Evil,” a terrible episode, focused an a near-god-like-being bent on murder and general destruction. After the away party touches down to investigate a downed shuttle that contains Troi, they come face to face with an oily being that demands that the landing team follow orders. In a fit of rage, it hurls Yar across the sands and she just sort of dies. It’s really weird.

The crew bring her up to the ship and Crusher declares her dead. Picard eventually gets Troi off the planet and declares the world forbidden and they eventually go to a memorial service for Yar on the holodeck. She has recorded a message for each of the main crewmembers in the eevent of her death, which is creepily specific in the way that it would have had to probably be updated every couple of months. Everybody has a good cry and that’s it. Worf gets promoted and for the rest of the season, we don’t hear another word about Yar or “rape-gangs.” The whole episode accommodates Crosby’s desire to do other things after she felt like her character didn’t get enough attention on the show, but it’s a cop out. I’m not a fan of Tasha Yar as a character, but she deserved better. She deserved to die, fighting for her crew, but that’s not what we get. It’s weak storytelling designed only to deal with off screen problems and all the seams that are intrinsic in plotting of this type show.

All in all, it’s a deeply flawed first season that despite having some great moments, has no idea what its strengths are. Some of the relationships between the characters are a little overly stiff, primarily the one between Riker and Picard. After I finished the season, I actively questioned how the show lasted past one season. The flaws were so visible and so many of the plots were so visibly recycled from the Original Series that it was hard to ignore, but the moments that work end up working so well. Even better, there’s such a great sense of building a world around an established universe that it is obviously creates a universe that was able to really attract fans. This is the series that created a fan base that has lasted past the show going off the air in any iteration over six years ago.

In place of the usual Random Notes for these episodes, it’s time to give out a variety of awards and not-so awards to the season as a whole, so here we go.

Best Character: Data

Data ends up being the Spock of The Next Generation. Even more than Worf, Data is the true alien of the show. His struggle to fit in and understand human emotions is charming without being overly cloying and his struggle with Lore in “Datalore” is one of the most compelling conflicts of the season, despite its terrible ending.

Worst Character: Deanna Troi

I don’t feel like I can actually count Tasha Yar here because that would be rude. Troi’s problems are so deep. Here telepathic abilities feel like nothing more than being able to read body language and the amount of respect everyone gives her feels so unearned. The problems are only compounded when she becomes the focus in “Haven” and as her mother becomes a minor character she becomes even worse. I can’t care about her and her arranged husband just as I can’t care about her and Riker being former lovers.

Most Badass Moment: A Welcome to Klingon Valhalla – “Heart of Glory.”

One of several Klingon pirates dies on board the Enterprise and his compatriots as well as Worf howl as he passes on, giving the afterlife a warning that a Klingon warrior is entering. Badass.

Most Uncomfortable Moment: A Welcome to Klingon and Human Relations – “Justice”

While on a planet full of justice-obsessed nymphos, Worf describes how humans could not have sex with Klingon without literally destroying them with their massive Klingon penises. It’s so terrible and it ends up sounding like something Tyler the Creator would have written if Odd Future had been really into DS9.

Worst Episode: “Arsenal of Freedom”

You know what I have to say about “Arsenal of Freedom?” It’s damn near the most boring hour of television I’ve ever seen. The plot might not have been able to fill 15 minutes and the padding is so mind numbing that it’s offensive. (Runner Ups: “Angel One,” “Justice,” “Haven,” “The Naked Now”)

Best Episode: “The Big Goodbye”

Smart, fun, tense and a great look at how the writers will later remove all the excitement from the holodeck. The b-story is a little rough, but watching Picard enjoy his fantasy only to watch it all go wrong is exhilarating. (Runner Ups: “Heart of Glory,” “Conspiracy,” We’ll Always Have Paris,” “Symbiosis,” “Datalore”)

Episode 33: “The Apple” and everything you ever wanted to know but were too afraid to ask about sex.

By 1967, America was in the depths of a weird struggle with sexual identity. Woodstock was coming, the hippies were rising and people were still grappling with Kinsey’s several decades old study on sex. Deviancy was becoming something people were aware of but they were comfortable with so little of it.

Television was one of the places that this struggle manifested itself most clearly. I Dream of Jeannie featured a readily visible navel as well as cleavage and Bewitched featured a man and a woman sleeping in the same bed whose actors were not married in real life. Meanwhile, Glligan’s Island brought a mostly exposed Mary Ann to the screen every week. No one knew how to respond and the shows occasionally faced protest from advertisers and viewers but in a world without more television options, people were stuck with what was on. They were uncomfortable, but didn’t have a choice.

But was America ready for this?

I think this sense of general confusion as to what the new sexual standards in American television were leads to what makes “The Apple” such a bizarre episode. The writers set up to make an episode almost entirely about fucking, realized they couldn’t and ended up creating something much stranger.

So, the Enterprise stops by Gamma Trianguli VI and Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Chekov, Crewwoman of the week/Chekov-love-interest Landon, and a host of soon to be dead red-shirts beam down for a scouting expedition to check out the planet. Things seem to be perfect and McCoy quickly makes the Garden of Eden reference everyone was looking forward to. Naturally, things start getting dangerous and plants are shooting deadly darts into red-shirts and eventually into Spock, who survives only because of his half-Vulcan ancestry. Everyone’s on edge and things only get worse as rocks start showing themselves to be landmines.

The first of four, count them, four, redshirts to die.

Kirk wants to get the crew off of the planet, but Scotty says that something is effecting the ship’s antimatter drive and not only can they not beam back up the team, but it appears that the ship is falling out of orbit and may be coming down to the planet. Kirk and his crew need to figure out what is going to take out the ship.

They get the chance pretty quickly when the crew catches sight of one of the natives. Kirk sets a trap and punches the native who expresses nothing but confusion from the attack. He introduces himself as Akuta, the leader of the feeders of Vaal, and explains to the landing team that his people are lead by Vaal, a sort of God who takes care of the environment as well as the natives. Akuta shows them the dragon-headed god but says that Kirk cannot speak to the deity. The party is led to the village where they are introduced to the other natives, who, because this is Star Trek, don’t understand the idea of love and are puzzled by Kirk’s questions of why there are no children on the planet.

I spent a lot of time wondering if this was William H. Macy.

You’ve probably guessed it by now if you’ve watched any television ever, but particularly any science fiction. Vaal is a computer that provides everything that the people of the planet need and has instilled rules and laws into them that are in keeping with computer programming. The people only do what they need to survive and nothing more. The problem comes once again in the details. Did Vaal spawn the humanoids on the planet? Did they come here and lose their memory of love? Are they a second or third generation of the original settlers and haven’t been taught the ways? Any real attempt to rationalize their lack of knowledge of love or children turns up flat and creates problems with buying into the settlers having had a long-lived society. McCoy is appalled that they are forced to sacrifice their humanity like this to live under Vaal, but Spock believes that the people are healthy and happy with their lives and the crew has no real grounds to try to change the lives of people who seem to be pleased with the way their lives have turned out. It’s an interesting question and one that Star Trek has gone back to many times when the crew comes across a new society very different from their own.

The crew starts to wonder the implications of the society; with Landon questioning what would happen if one of the villagers were killed in an accident, y’know possibly from any number of the super dangerous plants or fucking rocks littering the planet. Spock posits that Vaal would give the people instructions as to how to get a new person into the world, but it sits really funny. The people are so independent that it doesn’t seem like they would understand how all of this would work. It sits even stranger after the next scene when two of the natives see Chekov and Landon kissing. They’re confused at what it is and they suggest that they should just give it a try. They both like it, although it seems confusing. What basis do they have to reference?

Wouldn't it have been easier to just have kept any number of the Yeoman who looked exactly like her instead of getting a new one every couple of episodes?

Intimacy is weird in all cultures. I had a conversation with a girl I was dating about hand-holding, how it’s evolved from parents leading their kids across the street and to keep track of them, but as we get older, it’s like a means of ownership or a displaying of affection for strangers and bitter Star Trek bloggers to gawk at. This can be a strictly Anglican thing though. Different cultures do things differently. I guess close contact between people is generally enjoyed for most people, but would that really be something that a culture that has never experienced love or sex could get into on the first time?

Regardless, the lovebirds get caught by Akuta who starts to get wiser to the interlopers influence on the natives. He decides they need to get their sticks together and start killing some of these blasted spacemen. They exterminate the last red-shirt and Kirk holds them off, ordering Chekov and Landon to keep an eye on them while he and Spock try to deal with Vaal. Spock warns that destroying Vaal would be a huge violation of the Prime Directive but that has never stopped Kirk from helping a society become more like America, I mean Earth, I mean Starfleet, I mean, something.

"Bring it down."

The Enterprise is losing their position in orbit and Kirk believes that Vaal is running out of power, so he orders Scotty to fire the phaser banks at the structure which apparently shuts it all down. Spock declares the computer to be dead and the ship starts to regain the power that Vaal was drawing from it. The villagers are released and Kirk explains to them that they will need to take care of themselves and start fucking to keep that society going. They’re confused but Kirk just tells them, “yeah, you’ll figure it all out,” and then they all leave, hoping that things proceed normally, and that’s about it.

It’s a pretty average episode all things considered. The sexual stuff sits pretty strange and there’s a lot of really weird off-putting humor that seems just a little bit out of place here, but overall, it’s a mostly fun episode that just happens to be a little too close to episodes like “A Taste of Armageddon” and “The Return of the Archons.” All things considered, that’s not a bad group to be in.

Random Notes

Literally every male red-shirt dies in this episode. It’s awesome.

They really try to mine all the humor out of Chekov that they can. I guess that’s what happens when he doesn’t have that terrible fucking wig on.

“Garden of Eden, with landmines.”

Next up: “The Doomsday Machine” which probably has an overly descriptive title.

Episode 30- “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and sweet Jebus, it’s a God-like being episode

If you’ve read almost anything I’ve written here, you may know of my problem with the Enterprise’s near constant contact with the occasionally beneficial, generally mischievous beings with unlimited power. I’ve complained about them (“Errand of Mercy,” “Arena”), occasionally justified their existence (“The Squire of Gothos”) and  raved about them (“Charlie X,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Corbomite Maneuver”). The thing is, they’re fucking everywhere.

So,  I feel like I’ve given the same spiel about a thousand times, but the main issue is the fact that most of the time, god-like beings feel a bit like a cheat. They come in, do whatever they feel, are defeated (generally in the same way, since apparently all gods have some sort of weird internal magic battery) and then the crew moves on. It’s fun, but that’s about it.

So, yeah, guess what I'm going to bitch about.

That’s the basic problem with “Who Mourns for Adonais?” It’s an episode I feel like I’ve seen before but I didn’t think about that at all while watching it. I generally enjoyed it, but there’s nothing very original and a really strangely muddled message, but that comes later.

It certainly starts with one of the most surreal openings for the show. The  Enterprise is coming up to Pollux IV, when a giant green hand grabs a hold of the ship, holding it in space. Soon, there’s a giant floating head reciting human mythology in a pretentious monologue that would make Chris Carter blush and he’s drawing Kirk and a landing party, sans Spock, down to the planet.

Certainly one of the more surreal openings for an episode.

Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and crewman-of-the-week/Scotty-love-interest, Carolyn Palamas, an anthropology expert, beam on to the planet to deal with the being. He’s dressed as a traditional Greek god and claims to be Apollo. He says that it has been thousands of years since he has dealt with humans and is glad to see those who may worship him.

I think the hair and vacant facial expressions are even the same as "Space Seed."

Of course, Kirk bows to no man and refuses to follow Apollo’s wishes, even as the God brings Palamas closer to him and strikes Scotty with lightning. The problems start to compound when Apollo ends up taking Palamas with him intending to make her a God.

Kirk knows that the only way to get his party off the planet and to save the Enterprise is to figure out the source of the God’s power and do all they can to defeat him.

Now this is both where I got hooked on and started getting a little confused about this episode. It’s suggested by Kirk that Apollo and the rest of the Greek pantheon were extradimensional travelers that arrived on earth and ended up being treated as gods by the ancient people. Ultimately, the rise of Christianity and science brought people to reject the old gods. With no one to worship them, they retreated back to the stars where they slowly faded without the adoration of the masses.

Let the adoration commence.

So all of that’s interesting enough and I’m sure the History Channel is currently touting some version of this as near fact, but the issue is that the episode makes this more and less important than it should be. The writers want to have it both ways at making this an episode about man’s rejection of religion and acceptance of the coming times but they also want just kind of a fun episode about another super powered man-child and his obsession with a buxom crew member.

All of this is made more agonizingly clear in the scenes between Palamas and Apollo. The whole thing is written to emphasize the relationship between humans attraction to the unknown and reeks of the similar situation between Khan and the crew-women of the week in “Space Seed.” Like in the season one episode, the woman mostly appears as weak as possible and as supplemental to the man. It’s required of the story, sure, but it also has a strange worshipful underpinning, partially because of the nature of Apollo’s status, but it still has a weird read.

Until this part. This part was pretty cool.

Like in “Charlie X” and “The Squire of Gothos,” Kirk realizes that they need to force Apollo to overextend his energy source. It helps that Spock has been figuring out a way to overcome the hand and force field around the area to strike at the temple. Meanwhile, Kirk convinces Palamas to spurn Apollo, ultimately driving him to unleash his powers in full force. He returns to the temple just in time to watch as phaser fire rips into the building, ultimately leading him to reject his plans for worship and return to whatever cosmic home there is for the lost gods.

As I said, its kind of a neat episode despite the god-like being just the message is kind of an issue. The writing is never clear enough either way to find out if we should be reading into this one way or the other, There’s enough talk on the death of gods and human kind’s relationship with the divine and abandoning faith in the name of progress that it’s hard to ignore in the grand scheme of the episode. Ultimately, it’s one of the better episodes of it’s kind, but the message and the overly surreal aspects turn the whole thing perilously close to camp.

Random Thoughts

Right up there with “Mudd’s Women,” this might be one of the most hateful episodes toward women. Kirk and McCoy have a really odd talk about Palamas on the bridge and how she’ll get married and leave Starfleet. This doesn’t sit well when put next to the scenes between her and Apollo.

Apparently, Chekov is 22 and pretty much the new cadet on the Enterprise. Kirk gets some interesting jibes off of him.

“And I am the Tsar of all the Russias!”

“Insults are effective only where emotions are present.”

You’d think that the Adonais would be a Greek character, but the episode is named for a Shelley poem. Strangely, they don’t use that version of Adonais and instead go for the Hebrew translation of “Adonis,” which means “gods.” I just knew the Shelley poem.

Next Up: “The Changeling” which, yeah, I wonder what’s going to happen.

Episode 29-“Amok Time,” Spock, Urkel and the ways of the world

Let’s talk about Spock, but more importantly, let’s talk about breakout characters of any kind. There’s little doubt that Spock rapidly became the breakout character of Star Trek. He’s the unknown made familiar. He’s maddeningly alien, but grounded in a way that allows viewers to connect and feel a common similarity. There’s something fans want in a character that doesn’t deliberately offer an opposing view but does it because he has to, it’s the way that he is. More or less, barring Shatner at his scenery chewing best, Spock ends up being the main character of the show. We watch him and want to see what he’ll do in any given situation.

This is the way of the breakout character. Their initial alieness ultimately gives way to becoming the driving force of the show. The most recent character to soar to these kind of heights is Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory. Initially little more than a straight man whose neurosis occasionally drives the plot, Sheldon has become the face of one of Thursday night’s most popular shows. In the more beloved but less publicly adored Community, Abed rose from a nostalgic movie quoting machine to the most interesting character simply because he surprises us.

Come on, name a worse character. I dare you.

What makes breakout characters appealing is also what makes them dangerous. Because viewers want to see more of them and writers want to put them in new and different situations, fans can be burnt out, or the characters can become overused and derivative. Probably the best two examples of the form would be Urkel from Family Matters and Fez from That ’70s Show.

Both outsiders from the traditional structure of the show’s primary characters, they end up seeming bizarrely alien. What they don’t understand or how their perspective influences their interaction ultimately draws viewers in, only to encourage the writers to put them in worse and worse situation. By Family Matters’ end, Urkel had cloned himself and gone into space. By That ’70s Show’s finale, Fez had bizarrely ended up with the show’s only real star, Jackie. Viewers remember these characters because they began iconic but ended wrong. By then end, the whole show would revolve around them to the detriment of everyone else.

There’s a danger with this happening to Spock and by today’s “Amok Time,” they had already dodged it once. Season 1’s “The Galileo Seven” has its share of flaws but it manages to create an episode putting everyone’s favorite Vulcan at the forefront without doing damage to the rest of the show’s dynamic. However, “Amok Time” has more in common with episodes like “What are Little Girls Made of?” and “Dagger of the Mind”; it’s essentially all Spock all the time.

"Excellent."

Without getting a head of myself, I’ll declare “Amok Time” one of the best episodes of the series and it does so by making a few incredibly bold moves, namely creating Spock as something damn close to the antagonist of the episode and presenting Vulcan culture as something alienating and strange. It’s weird, frightening but just familiar enough that we all have to hoe that Spock makes it through in the end.

As the episode begins, Spock is on edge. He’s not eating and people begin to notice. He’s loaded up on adrenaline, putting the ship on  a course to Vulcan despite Starfleet orders and is openly admitting his insubordination. The problem is that he’s not revealing what the problem is. McCoy has an inkling of what’s happening after seeing his adrenaline readings, but both the crew and we as an audience are watching as a friend definitely needs help, but can’t or won’t ask for it. Kirk has had enough and confronts his first lieutenant who after a fair share of embarrassment admits that it is time for pon farr, a Vulcan ritual of mating that must be completed by traveling home every 7 years.

Also, this woman gets to watch.

In a true shock to the established character we know and love, Kirk totally doesn’t follow Starfleet’s orders and brings his friend to Vulcan. Beaming down with Spock and McCoy, Kirk intends to see the ritual through. It’s a little creepy when you think about it, but it’s all too the episode’s benefit. When you explore the unknown in any creative medium you almost always have to have an audience surrogate in the mix to help the viewers out. One of the chief complaints with the Star Wars prequels was that this never happened. Everyone sits and talks about complicated laws, pacts and treaties and viewers sit, bored and wanting to have some idea of what’s happening. Compare this to A New Hope, where Luke, who has no knowledge of the Force, is slowly educated in the system, first by Obi Wan and then by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. We learn about the Force as he does and we’re never thrown in over our heads.

Somebody in the costume department liked women in silver everything.

Having Kirk and McCoy on the planet gives us this working base and it also helps to reinforce how odd Vulcan is, both in its rituals as well as its society. The planet is hot, with very thin air that its residents have to get used to. It’s nice to have characters noting the alieness all around them and its not long until things get stranger when T’Pau shows up. A matronly apparently very important Vulcan, she shows off the first appearance of the Vulcan salute before Spock’s mate T’Pring appears. The whole thing has a sense of bizarre mystique and even considering that, canny viewers will note that something’s wrong and it only gets wronger when T’Pring states that she has chosen “the challenge,” in which two people will fight for her hand. Naturally, Spock decides to fight for his bride and T’Pring decides for him to battle Kirk.

Pretty much exactly like this.

So, things aren’t looking good and the Vulcans are appearing stranger and more threatening all the time. Kirk doesn’t want to fight his friend and knows he’s at a disadvantage on the harsh planet. The adrenaline junky Spock isn’t letting down either, as the rite has become a biological imperative. McCoy and Spock know that this is a ploy on T’Pring’s part, as her doltish looking guardian seems to be her actual choice for a mate. Kirk doesn’t think Spock can take him so he agrees to enter battle, of course he doesn’t realize that the fight is to the death.

And Spock isn't shitting around.

Spock quickly takes the upper hand in the battle and McCoy knows that both of his friends are in danger. He asks T’Pau if he can administer a neuro-shot to Kirk in order to help him deal with the thin air and heat on the planet. She agrees and Kirk is injected before Spock really goes medieval on the Captain, ultimately appearing to choke him to death. His lust sated, Spock returns to T’Pring only for her to reveal her ploy, which could lead to her staying with the guardian instead of being wed to Spock, who has become something of a legend to their people. Spock leaves the planet with McCoy and the apparently dead Kirk to face his fate in front of Starfleet.

I don't know if I want to say that skipping out on Spock for this guy is woman empowerment, but sure.

Of couse, Kirk is alright, having been injected by McCoy with a sort of only-in-Shakespeare toxin that made him appear dead and allowed him to cede the fight. Spock’s spirits return to normal and everyone is able to head off on more space adventures.

I’m sick to death of writing about expanding a universe in a episodic show, but “Amok Time” ultimately is the episode to show how to do it masterfully. The unknown is alien and strange and it manages to cast our hero Spock into a strange light, even if he’s still the star of the show. This is an episode that boldly goes where we haven’t been, while showing the effects of this lingering strangeness on the characters that we care so much about.

Random Thoughts

Spock is a pretty huge dick at the beginning of the episode, particularly to Nurse Chapel. Nobody’s still making fun of Sulu for running around shirtless and almost stabbing everyone.

This is the first appearance of Chekov and in a show full of characters with bad wigs, he might be the worst.

Next Up: “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and let’s face it, it’ll probably be me.