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Why George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice Novels Suck

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I’m talking about the George R.R. Martin novels, not the terrible campy TV show that hipsters watch in soccer bars. That’s just Deathstalker the 100 million dollar TV show with a better class of actors, slightly less nudity and more gay references than a season of South Park.

I liked Game of Thrones. I liked Clash of Kings. By Storm of Swords, I was having my doubts. By Feast of Crows, the problems were too obvious to ignore.

 

1. A Song of Fire and Ice depends on soap opera gimmicks, not consistent plotting

Think of 24. The show’s plot was incoherent but it kept you watching by constantly throwing in twists and turns. An entire season made no sense but it didn’t matter because you were watching for the suspense and the shocking turn. The Following does the same thing now.

The Game of Thrones novels are a novelistic version of 24.

George R.R. Martin depends on gimmicks to make up for what he lacks in plotting. His original novels, Dying of the Light, Armageddon Rag, were big on atmosphere, but their plots made no sense. That’s still true in Game of Thrones, but Martin spent enough time working in television to borrow its plot gimmicks.

Characters are killed unexpectedly. Characters seem like they’ve been killed off, but they’re actually alive. (Martin has at least twice shown the body of a character only to reveal that he’s alive. Or is that three times?)

Some characters rise unexpectedly and then fall equally unexpectedly. There’s a name for this. Soap opera.

And just like on a soap opera, the gimmicks worked for a while until they became repetitive.

How many times have you seen this one? A character with no real battlefield experience, Robb, Daenerys, Tyrion, suddenly turns out to be Napoleon until they suffer an unexpected setback and lose everything.

All this furious activity disguises the fact that the novels are going nowhere and readers have figured it out. A lot of the frustration isn’t just because Martin isn’t writing novels, it’s because he isn’t moving the story forward. He knows he can’t move it forward. All he has is a bag of tricks. And he’s repeating them too often.

George R.R. Martin’s final trick is to sell the lack of forward motion and consistent plotting as gritty and realistic. Peel away all the gritty medievalism and it’s as gritty and realistic as Days of Our Lives.

 

 

2. Martin is good at Character, Bad at Endings

Do you know what Martin’s early novels all had in common? Botched endings. If you’re waiting for A Song of Fire and Ice sequel that gives you what you want, don’t wait. Martin isn’t capable of it. He’s a good writer, but a bad novelist.

Think of Lost. The show was great at telling the stories of individual characters. It just couldn’t do anything with them in a story. The character sketches were compelling. The story went nowhere. The ending was a disaster.

After five novels, Daenerys is the only character with a meaningful arc whose story has been advanced. Tyrion has a meaningful arc but his only job is going in circles. The less said of the rest of the crew, the better.

In Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings, Martin builds the equivalent of Lost’s early seasons. But once that’s done, like the show, he has nowhere to go. He’s bad at plot and he doesn’t care about it. Like the Lost writers, he just wants to play with character sketches. He doesn’t want to do anything more with them.

Like Lost, Martin randomly kills off characters. He brings in new compelling characters. But the real goal is a status quo in which the setting continues and nothing gets resolved.

Lost wasn’t a mystery about a secret island. Viewers just thought that. It was a way of letting the writers play with a bunch of characters. A Song of Fire and Ice is about letting Martin play with characters. It’s not about big battles or figuring out the mystery of what lies beyond the wall or how the dead can walk again. Readers just think it is.

They’ve been wrong all along.

 

 

3. George R.R. Martin isn’t Tolkien

The Game of Thrones novels are promoted by claiming that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien. There are writers who might deserve that honor, probably Robert E. Howard, but Martin isn’t one of them.

There’s very little original worldbuilding in Game of Thrones. Most readers never realize that because the books are told intensely through first person immersion that create a sense of unearned reality. The world seems like it exists, even though it’s very thinly sketched.

Also most of them have never read Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. The similarities are so heavy that if Williams had the guts he could put “The Series that Inspired Game of Thrones” on the reprints and dare Martin to do anything about it. And while Williams isn’t as good at the characters or the intrigue, his world is more realized than Martin’s poor copy of it.

The pseudo-medieval European religion and history are far more realized in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Martin just tosses them out there inconsistently. He doesn’t create a compelling fantasy universe the way that Williams does. George R.R. Martin creates compelling characters. That’s a lot, but it’s not great fantasy.

Martin’s early novels and stories did do some compelling worldbuilding with the Manrealm. It could have been one of Science Fiction’s great universes. But Martin dropped it and did a lot of television. And television is the only thing he can do.

The HBO series Game of Thrones bastardized Martin’s novels, but before it did that, Martin bastardized other people’s work to create A Song of Fire and Ice.

 

 

4. Martin is a good writer, but he never learned to write novels

George R.R. Martin has written some amazing short stories and novellas, but he never learned to write novels. Instead he gave up and went into television. He still doesn’t know how to write a novel.

A Song of Fire and Ice is popular because he used television writing gimmicks to disguise that fact. But the novels stretch on indefinitely because it’s all gimmicks and filler.

Martin can’t end the series because he’s never successfully ended a novel before. Each new novel in the Fire and Ice series just drags on even more. By Dance with Dragons, Martin wasn’t even bothering to pretend that he was ending a novel. And he didn’t. It’s just a chapter in a serial. And the serial can go on forever if the audience doesn’t notice that it’s going nowhere.

Kill a character. Bring him back to life. Up. Down. It’s all an attempt to avoid another failed ending.

If Martin really wants to do right by his audience, he needs to take a break from the universe, which he’s been doing anyway, and write a separate unrelated novel, and not one of the Cards universe collections, plot it out and end it successfully. Then he can take what he learned and apply it to the series.

Not that he will. The HBO cash and all the associated merchandising money keeps flowing in. Martin has become ridiculously famous. He can keep cashing in without delivering. By the time the HBO series ends, he can copy whatever it did with the elements he laid out or he can drag it out for another ten years.

But whatever he does, A Song of Fire and Ice will be mostly forgotten in a generation. The novels are not going to stick around because Martin can’t deliver and soap operas have limited rereadability.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if Martin, like David Gerrold, never releases a final chapter, but just basks in the fame until it goes away.

 

Longmire Pilot review

Longmire is the kind of TV show that television used to be full of. The eponymous protagonist with a tough past and a ready quip, talking to people, unraveling a mystery and then riding off into the sunset. It’s a type of television that is almost as endangered as the Western and Longmire is both.

Longmire will be compared to Justified, but it doesn’t have much in common with Justified’s hipster frontier. It’s not knowing or self-aware. It isn’t aimed at viewers who want a postmodern soap opera, a True Blood, Game of Thrones, Sopranos or Justified, that is far enough away from Days of Our Lives to make them feel clever for watching it. It’s just a good old-fashioned sheriff  cop show. And it’s a good 40 minutes of television that reminds you that the old stuff works.

The cast isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to it. The West fills out the landscape against which every great detective show takes place, whether it’s New York City or Hawaii or Singapore. And the stories take, what is obviously a series of mystery novels, and condense them into something that plays on TV for 40 minutes or less.

There’s Sheriff Longmire, the beleaguered lawman mourning his wife and fighting off a younger rival. Solving crimes by noticing things, instead of by calling in lab techs. There’s Katee Sackhoff’s tolerable Vic, as a homicide detective not working in a small country, who fills out the usual sidekick role. But mostly there’s a wide frontier full of cowboy chic from Indian pollongmire posterice to mounted elk heads, old wood and antique guns.

The pilot isn’t anything you haven’t seen hundreds of variations on. The mysterious murder victim whose life unrolls the secrets that led to his death. A young girl forced into prostitution. A setup and a gunfight. It’s everything you’ve seen in Hawaii 5-0, Vega$, The Fall Guy, McCloud and a hundred other TV shows. But it’s rendered clean and fresh. It’s not original and it doesn’t quite feel new, but it feels open in a way that most television doesn’t anymore.

Longmire isn’t great television, but it’s good television. I don’t give good odds for its survival, because like Terriers, the authentic detective show doesn’t play on cable television anymore. A detective can be neurotic and weird, because cable is supposed to showcase screwed up people, but the story has to be there just as a soapy arc to showcase more weird allies and villains. It can’t be something as clean and succinct as Longmire.

And yet Longmire is the perfect antidote to the CSI’s, Law and Orders and NCIS’s that took over free television and the hipster soaps that are one shade away from fifty shades of grey. It’s television as it used to be and it still has appeal. That’s why Tom Selleck’s bland take on Jesse Stone has been a surprising success for CBS. USA has managed to make the occasional detective show work. FX blew it with Terriers. Maybe A&E can hit a home run with Longmire.

Ruth Rendell

Sometimes you pick the books you read, sometimes the books pick you when you’re in a place with limited available reading material. I’m obviously not the demographic for Rendell’s books, but still picking up a copy and seeing all the praise for it, from reputable publications calling her the greatest living available writer ever, I expected something… better.

Rendell isn’t a bad writer, but there was nothing in Not In the Flesh, that half the contributors to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine couldn’t plop out annually. And looking at the list of Rendell’s novels, that seems to be what she does. The Wexford novels are obviously phoned in. Not in the Flesh is a novella fleshed out a little with a female genital mutilation story that has nothing to do with anything else, except that it’s an issue the author cares about.

The Kate Atkinson novel I read afterward was not only about a dozen times better, it read like the author had put some work into it. Rendell doesn’t. The outcome of the case is obvious. The clues pop out at you from the background material. An aside describing a ring means that the ring will become significant. When Rendell goes on about a ring on another character’s finger given to her by her murdered boyfriend, the connection between the two murders becomes obvious. Similarly when she goes off on a rant about a writer’s religious novels and points out that one stands out, it becomes obvious that the novel was stolen and that explains the first murder. Anyone with half a brain knows the ending 100 pages before the plodding Wexford finally gets there. All this is lazy writing. Rendell could probably do better. She doesn’t bother. And these things apparently sell well enough that she doesn’t need to.

All fair enough. What I was less prepared for was the weirdly dogmatic political correctness and the sheer hatefulness of some of it. It’s not that I disagree with her, so much as the first 100 pages felt like being shouted at shrilly by someone on a train. Every few pages there’s some petty mini-lecture. I’ve read Henning Mankell. His politics are there, but he doesn’t relentlessly beat you over the head with them. Hannah Goldsmith becomes unbearable a few pages in, and it’s unrealistic that a junior officer would even be bullying a superior officer over such petty things. But after the first 100 or so pages, Rendell levels off and focuses her politics on a sideline about genital mutilation that has nothing to do with anything. The homophobic character sketch of Greg, is an odd choice for a woman who relentlessly lectures on bigotry.

It’s the hatefulness that’s unpleasant. Whether it’s through the eyes of Wexford, a middle aged male inspector or one of his subordinates, the descriptions are oddly hateful and when it comes to women, catty. They’re not plausibly those of Wexford. And they clash with the tone. The bias also makes the mystery much less of a mystery. You can tell the villains by how hatefully Rendell describes them or how much of a tear she goes on over them. Her rant about Son of Nun makes the final culprit obvious. It’s sloppy, but again Rendell clearly doesn’t care.

Warren Ellis ‘ Orbiter – An Enthusiastic Review

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Orbiter is probably the graphic novel people least expected from Warren Ellis, the creator of such series as Transmetropolitan or Global Frequency. It is the kind of story that Hard Science Fiction writers regularly make the effort to write about but with none of the casual grace that Warren Ellis’s words and Colleen Doran’s art brings to Orbiter. It is the kind of story that Hollywood regularly makes into movies and usually misses the mark. Take one part Steven Spielberg mix with some Greg Bear and stir with some Larry Niven, Robert Forward and Ben Bova and you essentially have Orbiter, a story about the beauty and wonder of space and the danger of losing it and the loss of leaving it behind.

Dedicated to the astronauts who perished in the Columbia disaster, Orbiter is an articulate and passionate call for manned space exploration haunted by the fear that the Columbia disaster would allow those who support theoretical robotic manned exploration to triumph over manned human exploration with a view to expanding beyond earth.

Orbiter begins with Venture, a shuttle “lost in space” ten years ago, returning home in a fiery catastrophe. With the loss of the Venture, manned space travel had been abandoned and exploration is being carried out purely by robotic probes. The Kennedy Space Center is an encampment filled with Katrina style displaced families and white trash living on its grounds and landing pads. (As can be seen in a panel from the comic book at the bottom of the page.) It’s a scene that implies a larger story in the framework of the issue, so do the grimmer touches such as military personnel empowered to execute anyone breaching security on the spot, but it only forms the background. The story itself arrives with Venture coming out of the sky on a plume of smoke and flame to an unbelieving crowd which has not seen a space shuttle fly in ten years.

What follows then is bloody and horrific and somewhat clashes with the more optimistic and hopeful ton of the second half of Orbiter as everyone in the vicinity dies, some crushed underneath the massive space shuttle and others in the heat of the reentry. To the debris, rescue and recovery teams arrive, sorting out the dead and security the returned shuttle. At this point a military operation throws together a crack team of researchers, some ex-NASA personnel, including Anna, the psychologist in charge of debriefing astronauts on their return from earth and a young genius obsessed with creating engines, to investigate what happened to the Venture.

Like most mysteries Orbiter works by concealing crucial information from the reader by hiding it in a particular place while uncovering lots of clues to begin to unravel the mystery. The hiding place is the mind of the Venture’s commander, John Cost, the only one of the seven man crew who has returned to earth, deemed clinically insane. A video of his first appearance shows him tackling two soldiers who have entered the Venture and attempting to bite them and gouge out their eyes.

But while Anna tries to reach John Cost, the Venture itself turns up large numbers of clues and mysteries, from Martian dust in the wheel frame to the covering of organic skin that covers the metal skin of the space shuttle, to the organic technology of the interior, John Cost’s condition which suggests that he had never even been to space along with the whole mystery of where the Venture had been these past ten years.

The resulting journey is part technology, part speculation and part wonder. The gory aftermath of the Venture’s return and Cost’s attack on the soldiers is left behind, unaccounted for, as the team quickly falls into speculating in awe filled amazement at the answers and mysteries within the reformed space shuttle as team members speculate about an advanced alien technology being responsible for the shuttle’s transformation.

Though the actual technological premises of the reworked Venture are farfetched, Warren Ellis does a good job of balancing them out by focusing more on the crew’s enthusiasm and Colleen Doran’s art lays out panel after panel of the team exploring and investigating the Venture, a prospect that sounds tedious in the abstract but in practice compels with the same fascination that watching the preparations of a rocket launch does, because it possesses that distant sense of wonder at knowing that what we see here is the beginning of something wonderful. As scenes of John Cost’s recollections and the team’s investigations of the Venture’s mysteries are contrasted with grand shots of the Venture’s journey among the planets and stars, to Mars and beyond, Orbiter captures that gleam of starlight which is at the heart of our love for Science Fiction and space exploration.

Warren Ellis never really reconciles the gruesome opening of Orbiter with its most hopeful second half. Nor is there any real explanation for why John Cost’s response to the soldiers was so psychotic, when he appears to be moderately functional and his journey was actually one of amazement and wonder, rather than some scarring and terrible extra-dimensional trip of horror. So the story that begins with a tinge of Event Horizon winds up becoming Carl Sagan’s Contact. But in the end that doesn’t matter.

Orbiter is carried along by the passion of writer and artist for the subject matter that projects easily from the pages. The story is more than a series of pages and panels, it is a paean, a love poem to space exploration and to space travel, to starry skies and the men and machines who dare and struggle to hurl themselves up out of this world and into worlds beyond. One of the more extraordinary things about Orbiter is just how weightless it feels, how lightly the story is told and how easily it is rendered. The look and feel of the Orbiter cover suggests something heavy is about to unfold and while what happens has global and even cosmic repercussions, the story drifts along easily, always headed to its final destination with pinpoint accuracy and while it is not by any stretch of the imagination a new story, it is an easily told and wonderful display of love for the cosmic journey of exploration.

If you have ever looked up at the stars at night and wondered about the planets that whirl around them, the frozen balls of rock and gases circling them in the night, the lifeforms that might dwell on them, whistle through their skies and creep through their forests and deserts and swim through their oceans, Orbiter is for you. If you have ever treasured an Apollo patch, built models of spaceships, fictional and non in your basement, or proudly worn a NASA patch on your jacket, Orbiter is also for you. If you have wondered what happened to the proud tradition of space exploration that has been increasingly sidelined by experiments and probes, Orbiter is also for you.

The J.J. Abrams Cloverfield Mystery

Cloverfield film posterOne thing Lost and Star Trek 11 have certainly demonstrated, J.J. Abrams has almost as good a facility as Steve Jobs for turning a non-event into an event with mysterious websites and teasers and hints and clues all meant to generate discussion about what might be happening which usually turns out to be more interesting than what actually is happening.

Cloverfield is a case in point. It’s certainly worked. The new website EthanHaasWasRight.Com (a decidedly Lost concept) is generating plenty of interest, the messages are being discussed and CNBC has already covered the non-teaser teaser aired before Transformers. But of course is there anything even worth discussing?

That’s the problem with viral hype, it’s completely insubstantial. It’s based on a mystery, much like Lost, which may or may not be entirely hollow. There’s no discussion over the valid material but over wacky speculation over what it might be. Cloverfield may be something interest or not. I have no idea. Neither does anyone discussing it. I know mysteries are fun but mysteries without content are simply a waste of time.

Show me a box. There might be anything in the box. Write Cloverfield on the box. There still might be something interesting in the box. Or not. I have no idea. Neither does anyone but the people who put the something in the box. And that’s what these campaigns come down to.

A Cthulhu movie is an intriguing possibility but at this point meaningless. Without real information, there’s nothing to discuss.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – The Xindi

Summary: Leave behind everything you know because it won’t work here. Well, actually it will work here. Forget we said anything; feel free to take along everything you know.

star trek enterprise xindiReview: After drooping ratings and a widely popularized overhaul, ENTERPRISE might have been expected to come out swinging in its season three premiere to amaze and win back viewers with something new and exciting. But while “The Xindi” clearly has more FX and production dollars invested in it and more action scenes than the average episode, all told it’s a rather commonplace affair. While season three ran under the tagline ‘Leave behind everything you know because it won’t work here,’ “The Xindi” is clearly a poor demonstration of that philosophy. Indeed, if we eliminate the actual Xindi elements from the episode, what we have left is an episode that could just as easily have taken place in any of the earlier seasons.

After the previous season ended with the Enterprise NX-01 vanishing into the mysterious and ominous Expanse to confront unimaginable horrors and wonders, “The Xindi” is a rather pedestrian episode in which the only major effect of the Expanse appears to be some flying cargo crates. Not only that, aside from brief scenes of the Xindi council, we end up with another typical ENTERPRISE storyline in which Archer and Trip are captured by another group of funny looking aliens with cardboard motivations and T’Pol and Reed have to arrange a rescue. A plot twist that the show hasn’t just done to death but actually resurrected and done to death all over again. The addition of the Xindi arc rather than enhancing the episode further impoverishes the non-Xindi content as it removes any need for the writers to give the non-Xindi events any depth because they’re just marking time to the Xindi encounter.

Aside from Archer acting slightly edgier, most of the intensity and drive we saw in “The Expanse” seems to have been replaced by the ennui of their routines as if the characters are just as bored by what they’re doing as we are. Only Trip manages to retain some of the energy from the season two finale, and that too is promptly squandered by the episode’s end. “The Expanse” was certainly far from perfect but it set up some interesting potential stories. “The Xindi,” by contrast, not only fails to follow up on that potential but shows that the writers would rather return to the same old stories than actually try anything new.

Indeed in many ways “The Xindi” is a rehash of the original ENTERPRISE pilot, “Broken Bow.” Like the debut, Archer and his crew are venturing into the unknown with a new mission that seems interesting on paper, a mysterious new enemy Archer needs to learn about, an informant who is located and then pursued by enemies resulting in a shootout, an escape from an alien base during which time the informant is killed, and an episode that ends with tantalizing suggestions about the nature of the new enemy. Perhaps the producers should have gotten the message that a new ENTERPRISE might require new writers or at the very least new ideas, instead of the same old ones recycled and massaged into a slightly different form.

The episode’s highlights, aside from Trip’s dream of course, concern the Xindi themselves. Moments like the Xindi council and the view of the shattered Xindi planet evoke some of the awe and mystery the episode should needed. The sense that we’re going, if not quite into uncharted territory, but into at least somewhere bigger and different than we’ve seen on ENTERPRISE in the last two years. But those moments were sadly few and far between. Trip’s story appeared to have potential initially with an effective dream sequence and a seeming addiction to sleep aids but the show’s gift for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory manifested itself again as by episode’s end the story was reduced to another clumsy and graceless attempts to boost its sex appeal by getting T’Pol’s clothes off. As absurd as previous attempts like the ‘Spread Your Germs Around’ blue light decontamination chamber have been, “The Xindi” manages to hit a new level of absurdity with the Vulcan topless back massages that also relieve stress over the death of loved ones.

The military team have no particular function except to upstage Trip’s red shirts with a display of efficiency and precision design that make them look cool and us wonder why every starship in the future doesn’t come with a similar team, but don’t really tell us anything about the characters or let us get to know them. And it’s doubtful that they can repeat this trick too many times because it would foil ENTERPRISE’s traditional plot device of getting Archer captured. At the same time, I found myself more interested in them than in the regular cast, which is never a good sign. Nor was being able to guess that Archer and Trip would be captured the minute they walked into the mine, despite having not read any spoilers for the episode. These are all signs that a lot of this material is growing stale. Season three seemed advertised on the premise that it would be delivering fresh material that seems to be on back order.

Next week: Archer goes 24’s Jack on a Xindi.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Terra Nova

Summary: Enterprise explores the mystery of a planet whose human colonists have disappeared and gone feral.

star trek enterprise terra novaAn episode rather similar to the 7th season Voyager episode, Friendship One. Much of the same elements are there. The poisoned planet and its diseased underground inhabitants who blame humans for their plight, hostages being taken, an unreasonable leader and a somewhat more reasonable woman whom they manage to reach through a medical cure. The minor difference is that the settlers aren’t nearly as violent as the cave people from Friendship One, which makes them somewhat understandable and sympathetic characters. The key difference of course is that the inhabitants are actually feral children of the original human settlers from the colony covered in mud. This difference is also the only reason why Terra Nova works and Friendship One didn’t.

Or at least it works for a while anyway. Starting from the premise of a Roanoke colony whose inhabitants have gone missing, the episode makes for an intriguing beginning but as with Strange New World, the episode quickly deflates the mystery and moves on to dealing with the human elements of the problem. While this is an improvement over Voyager’s tendency towards technobabble and spatial anomalies, a little mystery can be good too. And the only mystery that remains involving the impact that brings the poisoned rain is deflated and resolved in an all-together un-mysterious manner.

Still Levar Burton’s (Geordi from TNG) lushly shot exteriors and the talents of the two actors playing the natives at overcoming the dialogue peppered with bad post-apocalyptic 80’s movie slang, help make Terra Nova work well enough as a good episode, even if not a particularly rewatchable one. Recovering from last week’s disaster, TN features some rather clever set design including a brief shot of a large armadillo like creature, whose shells are scattered around everywhere around the caves and turned into tools and food. It’s a cheap and subtle touch that goes a long way. A lesson Unexpected could have certainly used.

Better yet, Dr Phlox and Malcolm Reed who may well end up being Enterprise’s breakout characters get more screen time and the dreary and bland Trip gets less screen time. Reed has some very nice underplayed moments in the caverns and even Bakula himself shows some emotion and becomes genuinely distraught at the revelation of what the colonists have become. After the last two episodes where Bakula bordered on the robotic, it’s nice to see that he has some depth to play.

The ending is more than a bit of cliche. It’s the one piece of the plot that isn’t directly borrowed from Friendship One, but it is borrowed from about a dozen episodes of Bonanza. Still it’s a cliche that flows well enough with the general feel of the episode, which like most of the Enterprise episodes so far is charmingly earnest and sincere, if not particularly engaging or suspenseful.

Next week: Enter the Andorians.

Star Trek Voyager review – Repression

For all the years Voyager has been in the Delta Quadrant, Tuvok has been suspicious of a Maquis revolt. In Worst Case Scenario it was Tuvok who even started a holographic simulation of what might happen if the Maquis attempted to take over Voyager. As the paranoid and borderline fascist security officer Tuvok has acted to protect Voyager from the Maquis threat and now ironically enough it turns out that the Maquis threat comes from Tuvok himself. This is an interesting notion and unfortunately it’s about the only interesting notion in the whole episode.

In part this is because the subject matter just isn’t all that gripping. Voyager’s premise of Maquis working together with Starfleet was a basic

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Put these on, the episode will look better

error because while the Maquis were relevant in the Alpha Quadrant where their politics vis a vis the Federation’s peacemaking with Cardassia meant something, in the Delta Quadrant they’re just guys who like to wear leather under their combadges. Without the Bajorans, Cardassians and the DMZ around, any episode involving the Maquis has a distant, remote feel to it. Worse yet, Repression feels like it should have been a first or second season episode, or as if it were written by someone whose impressions of Voyager are fixed from around those seasons. Its entire notion of Maquis paranoia and tension which might have served to smooth out a Maquis integration storyline years ago seems fairly retrograde by the seventh season. Finally, Repression makes the key, stunning mistake of being a detective story where the real culprit is out of reach, out of touch and out of communications range leaving the episode a story without any accessible villains and making it a generally uninvolving display.

From a charming beginning featuring Paris and Torres trying to watch 3D movies on the holodeck to the early investigation, Repression manages to generate a certain paranoid resonance by drawing out the mystery so that it actually seems intriguing. Voyager has never had a really good detective story, despite several lackluster attempts, and for the first twenty minutes Repression seems almost ready to provide one. The Maquis in the Delta Quadrant may not be the most compelling subject matter but the notion of buried tensions on board Voyager or some deep dark secrets in the Maquis past had plenty of potential for a good story. However once Repression begins to veer away from the actual mystery and towards yet another “Tuvok InnerConflict Story(TM)”, it becomes doomed to feature scenes of Tuvok desperately scrabbling at his face as if he is trying to dig his brain out with his fingernails. Twenty minutes of Tim Russ staggering about in a frenzy, twitching his face as if there are ants under his skin and wandering around with a glazed psychotic expression might be entertaining at a Halloween party but closeup shots of Tuvok’s frenzied expression don’t make good dinner entertainment and contrary to what Russ and the director may have thought, they make really poor drama.

In Star Trek, SpockData characters such as Spock, Data, Worf or Odo have been unique, intriguing but potentially dangerous. They were marked by their restraint contrasted with inner personal conflicts. They were also marked by a high standard of acting. Voyager on the theory that more is [more], has 3 SpockData characters on board and also has Tim Russ; and where Nimoy, Spiner or Auberjonois might have chosen restraint or dignity, Tim Russ chooses to act like a raving psycho for 15 minutes. Where a restrained performance from Russ might have helped redeem at least a portion of the episode, instead the suspense in Repression hinges on just when Tuvok will stop acting crazy and put an end to the whole mess.

While many of the early SpockData episodes that emphasized the potential of SpockData characters to go a little loony without being

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Mind rape whistle.... mind rape whistle

responsible for their actions were gripping and original, since then there seems to have been hundreds of episodes involving SpockData characters going nuts. ALL THREE of the last three TNG movies have featured a plot in which Data goes off his rocker in a way that makes him threatening or useless to the crew. In Generations, Data’s emotion chip prevents him from stopping Soran thereby allowing the kidnapping of Geordi and all the resulting events. In First Contact Data betraying the crew or not was the climax of the movie. In Insurrection it was the premise. We’ve had more than a few episodes in which the EMH went haywire and threatened Voyager. And now we have Repression, which rather than choosing to at least explore the Maquis or tensions on Voyager, instead hinges the plot on Tuvok going batty. Where TNG’s Manchurian Conspiracy pastiche had the sense to focus the plot not on Geordi overcoming himself, but the crew stopping him in time, Repression expects us to focus on what’s going on behind Tuvok’s face instead.

This worked halfway well with one of Voyager’s top actors, Robert Picardo in Warhead, but even there the onus was on the moral debate between him and Kim and the notion of Kim’s command abilities. Repression has nothing as tangible to pin Tuvok’s transition onto except Janeway tossing out meaningless cliches (and Mulgrew is Voyager’s worst actor). Are we really supposed to believe that the brainwashing that overcame the power of a Vulcan mind and of a Starfleet officer and forced him to commit numerous crimes and rebel against the Federation was completely snapped just by Janeway telling him that he’s in control of his own actions.

Admittedly the notion of using a Vulcan as a Manchurian Conspiracy brainwashing generator is interesting and Voyager has been teasing us with a Maquis revolt for quite some time, only to deliver one now in the seventh season. But ultimately characters who do things while brainwashed aren’t particularly interesting. They’re just robots who stride around and aren’t responsible for their actions and for the consequences of their actions. The Maquis rebellion isn’t remotely interesting because Chakotay and Torres aren’t themselves and aren’t responsible for what they’re doing. A real Maquis rebellion early on in Voyager’s history at the end of which Starfleet and Maquis would have been forced to realize that they need each other and must continue being allies for a common goal might have been interesting, but what Repression has to offer is silly.

On the plausibility front, are we really supposed to buy less than a dozen people taking over Voyager and subduing its crew… and two people then subduing them and taking it back all in a very short time. Janeway ignores Tuvok’s call to Chakotay even though she knows that Tuvok has been mind controlled into mind melding with them and that those crew have now seemingly recovered and are back on duty. Without so much as a struggle Janeway allows her ship to be taken over, herself to be imprisoned in the brig and nearly killed.

All said, the only good points of this episode are a demonstration of what Voyager might have been like commanded by Maquis and a competent Captain and the Maquis plan to dump the Starfleet personnel on a world to start their own colony.

Wonder what they would have called it.

Star Trek Voyager Review – Riddles

Your average TV drama has a limited repertoire of character relationships. Two characters can be friends, enemies, colleagues or lovers.

star trek voyager riddles

Tuvok, Default Expression No. 2

Mostly they’re the first and the third, during sweeps or when the show has gone on too long they may become the fourth and there are the perennial enemies who make up the fourth. The borders tend to be pretty set and follow a simple formula. But then there are the character relationships that seem to exist somewhere outside the formula: the Tuvok/Neelix relationship would definitely have to be filed under this category.

Both Tuvok and Neelix are strong characters in their own strange ways but where Neelix’s strength comes from how much he cares about his friends, Tuvok’s reservoir of strength, like that of all Vulcans, remains a mystery. Ever since Spock came on board and departed along with the rest of the Original Series crew, Star Trek has tried to duplicate the Vulcan formula with more or less success. Star Trek Phase Two, the follow-up to the original series, which never aired but was eventually transmogrified into Star Trek The Motion Picture, had a Vulcan named Xon. The Next Generation confined itself to two strong guest star appearances by Mark Lenard as Sarek and a somewhat less successful one by Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Deep Space Nine featured some embarrassing and unpleasant moments with their unexplained hostility towards Vulcans and Voyager, finally going where Phase Two was meant to go before, featured a Vulcan as part of the cast.

Despite fears, Tuvok was most certainly not a Spock substitute but something different, an angry, hostile and unexpectedly loyal full blooded Vulcan with an attitude bordering on the fascist. As with all Vulcans and characters intended to represent the “Other”, they’re only interesting when coming up against humanity thus defining again what it means to be human. As a result, such a character is often half-human and struggling with humanity as in the case of Spock or B’Elanna, wanting to be human as with Data and the EMH or afflicted with a superiority complex and rejecting humanity but insecure because of his own rejection by his own people like Worf, Odo or Seven of Nine. These of course are not genuine aliens, merely representations of ourselves that we toy with. A genuine alien character might want very little from us and give just as little in return. Such a character is not very interesting to us and this has been Tuvok’s dilemma all along.

We could not see Tuvok as a Vulcan within Vulcan culture because short of the occasional flashback to childhood there are no Vulcans for

star trek voyager riddles

You know him from guest starring on every TV show in the last 10 years... also The Killing

him to interact with in the Delta Quadrant anymore than there are Klingons for B’Elanna Torres to spar with. These species have a meaning in the Alpha Quadrant but in the Delta Quadrant they are just as alien as we are. And so Tuvok as an alien among aliens remains mysterious, a riddle no one can quite solve, though Neelix spends more than a little time trying. Just as McCoy served as the emotional middleman for Spock, Geordi for Data and Quark for Odo, Neelix does his best to be there for Tuvok whether Tuvok wants him to be or not. And that is where we are at the start, Neelix offering Tuvok a riddle whose answer is completely illogical, a joke, a play on words.

As we have seen frequently on Star Trek and other Sci-Fi shows, logical computers do not understand word play and neither does Tuvok. Neelix’s clingy prodding eventually drives him to his doom when he leaves to get some peace and quiet and is promptly zapped by a cloaked alien here to spy on Voyager. Tuvok is brought back to Voyager with his mind severely damaged and Neelix does everything possible to try and help him recover (possibly because he thinks the whole thing is his fault in the first place, although neither he nor Neelix mention this in the episode), from surrounding him with Vulcan objects or playing him Vulcan music to reading him Vulcan drama. Eventually Tuvok wakes up but rather than undergoing the kind of instant recovery characters on Star Trek usually do, he is damaged. At first even unable to speak and completely devoid of logic he becomes something Neelix is very good at dealing with, a child.

We’ve seen that Neelix is very good with children because Neelix is quite a bit of a man-child himself. Where normal adults communicate on a mixture of emotional and rational levels, Neelix can really only communicate on an emotional level and damaged as he is that is the only level on which Tuvok can now receive and respond. While Janeway and Co. assisted by an alien version of Agent Mulder with Janeway serving as his skeptical Scully investigate the mystery of the invisible octapodal aliens (who are wisely kept far enough in the background for us to want to see more of them instead of overexposing them as the Aliens of the Week), Neelix is forced to try and solve another riddle, the riddle of Tuvok.

While Voyager usually operates on the premises of science and rationality, Riddles’ core premise poses two riddles to which the answers are illogical. First is the X-File mystery of the cloaked aliens in which the Mulder character is of course correct, and second is Neelix’s dilemma of how to make Tuvok a whole Vulcan again. The riddle which frames the episode that Neelix asks at the beginning and Tuvok answers at the end points up that same theme. While Tuvok is correct to apply logic to a practical problem, the problems of characters can rarely be solved using logic but “by eating the dates on the calendar.”

When Neelix realizes that he cannot help Tuvok as a Vulcan instead he helps him survive as a friend and a caretaker, appropriately enough,

star trek voyager riddles

They used to have a commercial for this in the 80's

through food. Before Tuvok can become an adult, he must become an emotionally secure child and it is this experience that Neelix is most qualified to provide for him. As an adult Tuvok retains some of what Neelix has taught him during his “childhood”, allowing Tuvok to see past logic. Tuvok’s achievement in suggesting the Sundae solution is not in the answer to the riddle itself but in finding a way to communicate with Neelix and to respond to him on his level. Meanwhile the Inspector whose quest is just as irrational and emotionally driven as Mulder’s compensates for his unfeeling treatment of Tuvok by sacrificing his life’s ambition for him.

There are different levels of riddles interwoven throughout this episode. The core riddle is of the cloak Tuvok uses to conceal himself from others and is paralleled by the cloak the aliens employ to hide themselves from other species. The solution to both riddles is inherently irrational and illogical and joined as it requires restoring the cloaks used by both the aliens and Tuvok. Nevertheless, the logic to both solutions is an emotional one. By carrying through a deal with the aliens allowing them to feel secure, trust is produced allowing there to be hope that someday the aliens will come out of hiding on their own terms. Restoring Tuvok’s cloak allows him to integrate what he has learned of the child with the adult giving us hope that someday he might be more than just that cowling Vulcan in the corner.

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