We’ve already seen both the Good Place episodes, and I’m planning to come back to them after reviewing the rest of this category to see how they work out of context. So instead, we started with Star Trek Discovery: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”. This was great! My total previous exposure to Star Trek was The Trouble with Tribbles, and one of the movies back in the 1990s sometime, plus sometimes being in the room when Andrew was watching the new series, so I came to this with very few preconceptions.
This episode is kind of a problem-solving, time travel-ish, race-against-the-clock episode. The villain of the piece, Mudd, is trying to take over the spaceship and get revenge on the captain, and he does this by putting it in a timeloop, so that each time round, he gets to learn a little more about how the ship works, and, as a bonus, gets to kill everyone multiple times. But one of the crew, Paul, is actually linked to the ship in some way, so he remembers each loop, and starts trying to find ways to communicate what he knows to the other characters fast enough for them to come up with a strategy to stop the villain. This… is tricky, because first he has to get them to believe him, and then he has to get enough of the crew on-side to actually work together on this. Also, seeing his crewmates die repeatedly takes a terrible toll on him.
This episode also has a nice little romantic plot between Michael and Ash, who have clearly been dancing awkwardly around each other for some time and now have to actually talk to each other and work together in order to save everyone. This was done very sweetly and touchingly.
The resolution was satisfying, though I do find it hard to believe that the half hour timeloop was enough time in which to get THAT MUCH plot set up, given that everyone but Paul was starting from a place of ‘everything’s normal and Paul acts weird sometimes’, but I’m willing to give it a pass, because it was a fun, well-paced story which worked on its own terms.
This one is going to score well with me, I think.
Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time” was… fine. I’m not a Doctor Who fan, and this was clearly a very fanservicey episode, with a return of the first Doctor (or an actor playing him, and doing a very fine job of it), lots of historic footage, visits from former companions, and a namecheck for another well-known recurring character. There were Daleks, there was a nice, old-fashioned plot involving time travel and creatures that are somehow harvesting something from people in the moments before they die, and there was angst. And some schmaltz.
OK, I enjoyed it more than this makes it sound, but I did have some issues with it. The biggest is that it doesn’t pass the standalone test. I had no idea who the vicious slug-crab-like creatures who hated the Doctor were until Andrew told me. I didn’t know the significance of the gift given to the Doctor at the end. I did know about the recurring character (and they did a good job of finding/making-up someone who could very plausibly be the parent of that character), but that’s less irritating. I think the writing relied a little too heavily on us already having emotional connections to various characters and plot elements, and didn’t work hard enough at creating these connections for everyone else. Also, if you are going to have the sentimental Christmas ending, you shouldn’t also have the sentimental Last Words of the Doctor soliloquies. It’s too much. I’d been enjoying it up until that point, but that made me squirm.
On the positive side, I did like the poor old army captain at the centre of it. He was an interesting character, and he was played very well. I liked the running joke about the current Doctor wincing at things the first Doctor said – I gather that the first Doctor wasn’t *quite* that bad, but it was a nice nod to the fact that, yes, we have all moved on in fifty-odd years, and there are scripts written then that would not be written now.
And the reveal at the end… I knew it was coming and what it was, and I don’t care about Doctor Who at all, but somehow, the delighted grin on Doctor’s face when she looks in the mirror and says “Oh, brilliant!” brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know why. Something about the feeling of a whole new world opening up before her? So yeah, I really liked that bit.
I don’t think this was as good as the Star Trek, but it was a perfectly good Doctor Who episode if you like Doctor Who. We’ll see where it lands once I’ve had a chance to watch the rest.
Black Mirror: “USS Callister”, written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker, is… horrible. It does what it is trying to do very well, and what it is trying to do happens to be something I find nightmarish and unwatchable. I gather the general idea of Black Mirror is that it does standalone science fiction stories, using futuristic technology to reflect on current events.
This review is spoilerish, so I’m putting it in yellow – you will need to highlight it to read it.
In this particular episode, Robert Daly is the creator of a multiplayer, virtual reality game, called Infinity, but he has also created his own, customised version of this game, set on the USS Callister, which is a Star-Trek-ish universe and feel, in which he gets to act out his own power fantasies on digital clones of his colleagues. Which he creates using their DNA, so the digital versions are aware of who they are and where they are, but unable to do escape. This gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. In many ways, it’s an extended rape metaphor. What makes it particularly hard to watch, for me, is that the episode took quite a while to tell us what was happening, so I spent a long time going, eergh, white male power fantasy, yes I know this guy is being mocked by his coworkers, but this is still NOT OK. And we also have lots of that sort of embarrassment humour that makes me squirm in the first half of the show, too.
I think I left the room just after the halfway mark (so about 40 minutes in), and kind of half-listened to it from the study, popping my head in occasionally to see if it was safe yet. It wasn’t. The ending is satisfying, but it takes a long time to get there, and really, the vast majority of the episode is things getting worse and worse and more upsetting to watch.
It certainly did a fine job of pressing my buttons.
I’m not sure how to rank something that probably is very good and succeeds at what it is trying to do, but that I can’t finish and really dislike. I want to put it last because it was just HORRIBLE, but I’m not sure if that’s fair.
We finished our Hugo viewing with the two Good Place episodes. Michael’s Gambit is the final episode of Season One, and the episode with the big reveal. It’s a magnificent episode, and there is some brilliant acting – the way the face of one particular character changes at the moment when the reveal happens is absolutely masterful, and suddenly you can see, retrospectively, that expression behind all the other things that character has done on the show. I’m being very cagey here, because if you haven’t seen The Good Place, you really should, and this is the episode above all that must not be spoiled for you.
Having said that, I can’t give it a high place on the Hugo Ballot, because as much as I love it, it relies on the rest of the season to make sense – I don’t think it can stand alone at all well.
The second episode is The Trolley Problem, which is a total delight, and works much better on its own. The basic premise of The Good Place is that it’s a version of heaven, to which Eleanor was sent by accident (she was supposed to go to the Bad Place). But she is matched up with an ethics professor as her soul mate, and so he is trying to teach her ethics so that she can learn how to be good, and thus be able to stay without destroying the entire place.
This may sound boring, the show does a great job of teaching ethical systems and dilemmas while being very, very funny. This is a classic ‘ethics problem of the week’ episode, in which Chidi, the ethics professor, is trying to teach the four other characters about ethics, using the trolley problem as an example. But one of these characters is basically a demon, so he’s not great at ethics, or at remembering why he is meant to be learning them. It’s very funny, and you certainly come away with a good understanding of the ethical implications of the Trolley Problem. And a lot of images of how that works out in reality that maybe you didn’t want in your head. There is a romantic subplot which is less self-contained, but I think that’s OK, as you can still enjoy the episode as it stands.
I think I’m going to put The Trolley Problem first, since I want to reward the entire show, and this is a good example of what it does well. In second place, I’ve been hesitating a bit, but I think I want to put The Deep there, because I can’t get it out of my head, so it’s clearly doing something right. Star Trek Discovery is coming third, because that was a clever and delightful episode. I think I sort of have to put Black Mirror next, even though I want to put it last, because it is a fine story, just one I wish I’d never watched. Then Michael’s Gambit and Doctor Who, because while they are perfectly good episodes – and Michael’s Gambit really is brilliant in my view – neither of them really works as a standalone.