Friday, September 27, 2019

Star Trek: Encounter at Farpoint

Episode: "Encounter at Farpoint"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2 (initially presented together as a single installment)
Original Air Date: September 28, 1987
Image result for encounter at farpoint
via Memory Alpha
Finally, Star Trek was back on television, where it belonged.  The characters were new but the universe they inhabited was awfully familiar.  We have a brand new Enterprise with a brand new captain, one Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart).  On its first mission, the Enterprise is headed to Deneb IV where they are to open relations with the Bandi and also pick up their new First Officer, William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes).

But of course, there's a complication.  An omnipotent being identifying himself as Q (John de Lancie) invades the bridge, declaring humanity put on trial for its worthiness as a species.  Meanwhile, we start to get the sense that not all is as it seems on Deneb IV.  The Bandi have established a resort world where wishes are granted practically the instant they are imagined.  Perhaps the fantasy is too good to be true.

There's an awful lot of new for the faithful to assimilate in this pilot episode but the links to the original series (TOS) are rock solid.  Gene Roddenberry was back at the creative helm and he brought on franchise veteran D.C. Fontana to write the script.   Q descends from Trelane in TOS Season 1's "The Squire of Gothos."  The idea of a wish-giving vacation planet gone awry originates in "Shore Leave."  The seemingly new holodeck has a predecessor in the animated series (TAS), Season 2's "The Practical Joker."  The idea of humanity on trial is one clearly meaningful to Roddenberry as the franchise returns to it a lot.  TOS's "The Savage Curtain" and TAS's "The Magicks of Megas-tu" are notable early examples.  So, in terms of narrative, we're on terra firma.  But what about all of these new characters?  Can the Star Trek concept survive beyond the originals?

You know how sometimes when you're in a new place - college, for instance - your brain starts pairing the new people you're meeting with the more familiar people from your past?  Mine does that occasionally and I've observed others doing it, too.  Even now with a new student, I'll identify him/her as one of an archetype.  How about we play that game with Next Generation (TNG) characters as they might have descended from their TOS predecessors?  For the purposes of the exercise, I'll stick with what we know from this one episode.  It's limiting on the one hand but also simplifying in light of the development we all know is coming for some of the new kids.  Please note, I am focusing more on narrative role than position on the ship.  I will admit upfront that my own choices are imperfect and in many ways the imperfections are the very elements which will eventually make TNG the more interesting series (gasp!).  Obviously, I welcome discussion and debate.  Let's play...

Kirk = Picard
This one seems obvious.  Captain becomes Captain.  But almost immediately, we begin to see Picard as a different sort of leader from Kirk.  Yes, he's confident but there's something more quiet and personable about the way he interacts with his charges.  He's more vulnerable, too.  We learn in his first meeting with Riker of his discomfort with children, for instance.  If anything, Riker is more Kirk-like in terms of personality.  But Picard is ultimately the story's main protagonist and thus he is Kirk's successor.

Spock = Data
The TOS model requires a voice for logic to advise the captain and Data's our man!  Well, android.  However, in important ways, Data (Brent Spiner) is Spock's exact opposite.  Whereas Spock runs screaming from the emotional weakness of his human side, Data wants desperately to be more like a human.  Riker even makes a Pinocchio joke in this first episode.

McCoy = Troi (ha, it rhymes)
On the other side, we need an advocate for emotion and ship's counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) is the best fit.  In fact, of all the comparisons here, she is the easiest match.  She's nowhere near as cranky as the good doctor and her empathic abilities make her even better suited to this narrative purpose.  Sadly, she does lack the extraordinary eyebrows.

Scotty = Tasha
After TOS's Big 3, this game gets a lot trickier and the problem is clear.   As with most television series, it took a while for TNG to find its footing.  But the one area where it kicked TOS's butt from the first night onward is character development.  Perhaps it will be some time before we develop comparable attachments to any of these newbies as we already have with Kirk, Spock and Bones but the players further down the bench quickly outpace their counterparts on the older show.  Scotty's the perfect example.  The Scottish accent is just adorable but what's the point of Scotty really?  What purpose does he supply beyond occasional panic?

Loyalty.  Above all else, Scotty is fiercely loyal to his ship and to his captain.  I was ready to stick Riker in this slot until Tasha Yar's impassioned testimony at the trial.  Her devotion to the cause of the Federation is a clear driver for the character.  But again, courtesy of said testimony, we already know more about Tasha (Denise Crosby) than we ever learned about Scotty through two series and four movies.

Yes, I know what's coming.  It will require some juggling of this concept.  Stay tuned.

Uhura = Dr. Crusher
This one's easier, the easiest of the down-ballot contests.  The actress Nichelle Nichols loved Uhura for her occasional sensual femininity.  I will go a step further and assert that she is the most human of all TOS's characters, certainly on the second tier.  I believe it's the TOS episode "Charlie X" that contains a wonderful scene between Uhura and Kirk.  In a high stress moment, Kirk snaps at Uhura and she snaps right back.  In the midst of the crisis, the two of them stare at each other for a beat, then both apologize, quite sincerely.  It is a wonderfully genuine, tender exchange.  For a precious instant, the friendship supersedes all other responsibilities.  In "Encounter at Farpoint," we already see capacity for the same between Picard and Crusher (Gates McFadden).  Vicariously, Uhura finally gets the development she's always deserved.

Sulu = Geordi La Forge
With Sulu, we have even less to go on than with Scotty.  Perhaps it's more meaningful to go back to the original casting of the character.  The choice of an Asian actor (George Takei) for Sulu was not accidental.  By 1966, the United States had been at war in East Asia for the better part of a quarter-century.  An Asian face on the Enterprise crew was intended to be just as meaningful as an African one.  What's more, while Takei himself has always insisted on a broader Asian presentation for the character, the Japanese-American identity of the actor is not without significance.  In TOS's "Balance of Terror," there is a shot of Sulu when Spock's physical similarities to the Romulans' are exposed.  Perhaps it is unintentional but I have always sensed an extra message in that shot.  Takei spent part of his childhood in Japanese-American internment camps and the parallels with that chapter of history and the Spock/Romulan story are unmistakable to me.

Who better to offer comparable symbolism in a new series than a Black American actor?  What's more, LeVar Burton was not just any Black actor.  He was the most recognizable member of the new cast for his role as the slave Kunta Kinte in Roots, one of the most heralded mini-series in television history.  Geordi's development already exceeds Sulu's and it's only going to get better.  Stay tuned.

Chekov = Worf
Chekov, in turn, offers even less than Sulu.  In this comparison, it's the portrayal of the character as Russian that matters.  The 1960s were the depths of the Cold War.  The Soviets were the clear adversary of the Americans.  Having a Russian comrade (small c) on the crew in a more peaceful future was a deliberate gesture.  Before TNG, the Klingons were still the enemy of the Federation.  Seeing a Klingon serving on the Enterprise bridge was downright gasp-inducing.  As with everyone else, there's a lot more to come for Worf, including a particularly interesting dynamic to develop between him and Riker.  Stay tuned.

That takes us to the end of the primary TOS roll call, yet there are still a couple left on the TNG side.  Wouldn't you know it, the TNG bench is both stronger AND deeper.

First, the matter of Will Riker.  Obviously, he's essential to the new story, the actor given second-billing right after Stewart.  As noted above, I see elements of both Kirk and Scotty in Will.  There's even some of the playboy that was originally intended to be a bigger part of the Chekov character.  Ultimately, Riker proves a more dynamic figure than any of them - yes, Kirk included.  While he does not have a clear predecessor on the original show,  I do see a legacy in the movies...

Willard Decker = William Riker
Oddly enough, while watching The Motion Picture for my recent post, I thought it would have been nice to have more development for the Will Decker character.  In a funny way, we got it in the form of Will Riker.  Similar first names.  Similar last names.  Comparably handsome.  Virtually identical reunion scenes with Ilia and Deanna respectively.  Most importantly for the long term, the same sense of responsibility in challenging authority.  

Finally, Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton).  The too-often maligned Wesley.  As I have written before, if there's one thing I feel Trek handles more poorly than time travel, it's stories about children.  Wesley is often perceived as a weak point, especially in TNG's early going.  It's not the actor's fault.  I love Wil Wheaton.  For me, he will always be Gordy (Stand by Me).  It's the writers' fault.  I've long suspected that Picard's discomfort with children is a projection of similar anxieties for those behind the scenes.  But I'm veering off topic...

I don't believe there is a kid-in-the-candy-store equivalent in Trek before Wesley.  I would be very interested if anyone can suggest one.  Roddenberry saw the boy as a reflection of his own 14-year-old self, though the producer willingly conceded that he was never as smart as Wesley.  So, for the sake of the exercise...

Gene Roddenberry = Wesley Crusher

Music Notes

For the opening and closing theme, Jerry Goldsmith's theme for The Motion Picture was resurrected.  The rest of the episode is scored by Dennis McCarthy.  McCarthy made frequent use of an eight-note theme composed by Alexander Courage to represent the Enterprise.  He also recycled a piece he'd originally composed for the TV program V for Q's courtroom entrance music.

Acting Notes
Image result for young patrick stewart
via Wikipedia

Patrick Stewart was a serious acting upgrade for Star Trek.  Even though he was a virtual unknown in the United States when he was cast in the role of Captain Picard, he already had a stellar resume in the UK, especially on the stage.  He'd spent 16 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, including an Olivier Award-winning performance in Anthony and Cleopatra (he won a second Olivier post-Trek).  When he took the Picard role, he was living out of a suitcase in Hollywood, neither he nor his agents believing the show would last - quick payday, then get back to the real work.

Many, including fellow cast members, believe Stewart deserves the lion's share of credit for TNG's ultimate success, both for the strength of his acting and for the standard of professionalism he set for others.  Whereas TOS is lead by a strong trio of leading men, TNG has a first tier of one.  Even though Jonathan Frakes enjoys prime real estate in the opening credits and the ensemble cast feel far exceeds that of TOS, TNG is Picard's show.  That is obvious from Day 1.

I'm going to need to pace myself with these posts.  Obviously, I'm finding I have a lot to say.  But at this rate, I'm not going to have any time to watch the shows!

Kudos to any and all who read this far.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Squid Cooks: Pan-Cooked, Seasoned Burgers

I have been given Tuesdays.  My wife cooks dinner nearly every evening, mostly because she's better at it but also because she finds it relaxing after work, or so she claims.  But Tuesdays have become complicated.  Our daughter's clarinet lessons have been moved an hour later, so ideally we should eat before we leave.  The best solution for making that work: dad cooks.  I welcome the idea.  It's a fine opportunity to hone some of the quicker recipes I have already tried in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics and also implement the food choice thinking I've been doing in my weight loss efforts.

I asked my daughter if any of my recent efforts were especially appealing for her.  Burgers were her choice (see post here) so I tried not one but two of Bittman's suggested variations: pan-cooked and seasoned.  In all honesty, though, I took the pan option without thinking about it, simply being my more usual choice for hamburgers.  Next time, I might go back to the broiler, though with a shorter cooking time.  I like the crust on the outside but I also like the juicy middle - delicate balance.

As for seasoning, I tried two: oregano and basil.  I first had oregano in a burger at the St. Clair Broiler in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I lived in St. Paul for a year after college and the Broiler was a decent dinner option within walking distance of my apartment.  The place closed in 2017 after 61 years in business.  I haven't been to Minnesota in over 20 years but I've never forgotten those burgers.  I simply mix it in with the meat and onions before cooking.  We had some fresh oregano which I'd never cooked with before - worked just fine.  The basil was a new wrinkle, suggested by Bittman.  At my wife's urging, I added it fresh at the end rather than cooking it with the rest.   I wouldn't say it added much, at least not in competition with the oregano.  I think I might try curry powder next time.

Squid on the Vine

Domaine du Somail, Le Vin de Plume Minervois Red Blend, 2017
My Rating: 8.0
A little of the cat pee smell - yes, I know that sounds gross but it's actually a common description for a young wine.
Tart apple
Sacramental finish
My wife presented it as one that might appeal to me in my quest for the idea (see here).  It certainly opened with promise but then didn't take me very far.  Good.  Not great.

Monday, September 23, 2019

On the Coffee Table: March Book Three

Title: March: Book Three
Writers: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Artist: Nate Powell
Image result for march 3 john lewis
via Goodreads
Book Three of John Lewis's March series opens in 1963 with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a white supremacist terrorist attack that killed Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11).  The murders were a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The third book is the most intensely political of the three books, both inside and outside the movement.  (Please read my reflections on Book One and Book Two.)  While there had always been some tension between the major groups, Lewis even admits to the mistrust of him within his own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  After Kennedy's assassination, no one within the movement was quite sure what to expect from his Presidential successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson who had supported segregation in his time as a US Senator from Texas, a southern, Jim Crow state. 

Another thing I have learned more about from Congressman Lewis's books: the inspiration many American civil rights leaders took from similar, simultaneous efforts in Africa, most of that continent finally emerging from colonial rule.  Singer Harry Belafonte invited Lewis and other SNCC delegates along with him on a trip to Africa in, I believe, 1964.  It was the first visit for Lewis.  On that trip, Lewis ran into Malcolm X.  In fact, Lewis identifies it as the last time he saw Malcolm alive.  Malcolm X - just as polarizing a figure within the Civil Rights Movement as outside it - turns up a few times in the series but he definitely features most prominently in this last book. 

Included also, of course, is the march for which the series is named: not the March on Washington but the one from Selma to Washington in 1965, a story also told in the 2014 film Selma (read reflection here).

Overall, the series is outstanding, residing comfortably on the graphic novel Must Read shelf alongside Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (read here) and Art Spiegelman's Maus.  Forced to pick a favorite, I'd choose Book Two but truly, one should read all three.  The best books inspire me to read other books and I have already added several Movement histories to my wish list.  Lewis also has a sequel series in the works entitled Run.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Squid Flicks: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Title: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Original Release: 1986
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image result for star trek iv the voyage home
via Wikipedia
Admiral James T. Kirk and his usual motley crew are heading back to Earth, ready to face the music for the transgressions committed in The Search for Spock (see here).  Getting back is not as straightforward as they expected.  Earth appears to be under attack by a mysterious space probe.  The offending object is projecting whale songs, apparently hoping for a response from the planet's humpback whale population.  Sadly, by the 23rd century, the magnificent creatures are long extinct.

The solution is obvious: travel back in time, grab two whales out of the ocean and bring them back.  The Enterprise crew visits San Francisco of the 1980s, because obviously the Bay Area is the best place to find whales.  A costume drama in reverse ensues.

As written previously, I am not a fan of how Star Trek generally handles time travel and let's be honest, the premise for Voyage Home is even more contrived than usual.  That is not to say, however, that the time travel stories aren't still enjoyable.  Indeed, "The City on the Edge of Forever," arguably TOS's best episode, is a time travel narrative and its sequel "Yesteryear" is undeniably the best TAS episode.  Voyage Home's closest link to the legacy of the originals is "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" which also chronicles a visit to 20th-century Earth.  My post for that episode also includes my most thorough rant regarding Trek's time travel issues.

My basic problem: the writers tend to be careless about the contradictions that are the inherent peril with time travel.  If you're going to engage in time travel narrative, there have to be rules and you have to follow them.  I have no idea what the rules of time travel are for Trek.   My guess is there aren't any.  Thus my problem.

A specific offense from The Voyage Home: Scotty shares the secret of transparent aluminum technology with an engineer so it can be produced to transport the whales.  Scotty's justification: the engineer may well have been the man who invented it.  Convenient but careless.  Sure, one could argue that without this bending of the rules, the 23rd-century world could not be saved.  But at what cost?  None, apparently.  Lucky.

As a side note, the first patent for the process for producing polycrystalline cubic aluminum oxynitride was issued in 1980, before Scotty's visit.  This is the very stuff that has come to be called "transparent aluminum," because of the movie, naturally.  Whether it's actually the same substance used by Scotty for the whales, we may never know.

With all of my kvetching, I imagine you've assumed I don't like the movie.  Actually, I think it's pretty good.  In fact, if you'd asked me when I first saw it back in the day, I'd have claimed it as my favorite of the franchise so far.  I was an awfully romantic teenager and I found the whale story touching.  Now, I can see Khan is definitely the better film but Voyage Home is plenty good, even with my issues.

Is it better than Search for Spock?  The long-held conventional wisdom surrounding Star Trek films is that the even-numbered ones are superior to the odd-numbered ones before them.  2 is certainly better than 1 and I would say 4 is better than 3, though that's not as clear a choice for me as it once would have been.  Spock is better than I remember, Voyage Home hokier.  Voyage Home probably has the most appeal of the early movies for the general audience.  Good as Khan is - and it is the best - it's most meaningful for those who already know Star Trek.  I was not the only casual (at the time) Trek fan who was charmed by Voyage Home.

In addition to whale compassion, the writing offers genuine comedy:
Shore Patrolman: How's the patient, doctor?
Kirk: He's gonna make it.
Shore Patrolman: He? You came in with a she.
Kirk: One little mistake... 
That's almost Groucho-worthy!

While the comedy is a bit off-Trek (pun fully intended), it is a big part of the general appeal.  In fact, the comic plans were originally more ambitious.  The part of whale expert Dr. Taylor was initially written for... wait for it... Eddie Murphy!  Murphy was eager to be involved with a Trek movie and almost signed on for Voyage Home.  He chose The Golden Child instead - much to his own admitted long-term regret.  That might have been a bridge too far on the slapstick for me but it certainly wouldn't have hurt box office receipts.  Eddie Murphy was just about the closest thing there was to a sure thing at the time. 
Image result for eddie murphy golden child
via Wikipedia

Also, Dr. Taylor works well as a female character, especially since her relationship with Kirk never crosses past the line of platonic friendship.  Perhaps that's a carry over from the Murphy plan - the change too late to overhaul the story for romance.  So much the better, I think.  Love would have been predictable.

Trekkie treats
  • The big reveal of the new Enterprise ship at the end was genuinely goosebump-inducing for me.

Real world connections
  • The film opens with a dedication to the fallen crew of the Challenger space shuttle.  The shuttle exploded in January of 1986, killing all seven aboard.
  • In the movie, Chekov and Uhura sneak onto an aircraft carrier identified within the story as the USS Enterprise.  In truth, the USS Ranger was the vessel ("wessel" per Chekov) used in filming.  The Enterprise was at sea at the time and wouldn't have been available anyway as access to nuclear carriers was severely restricted.

Food notes
  • Kirk's reaction to beer is precious.  I would have suggested something other than Michelob.
Image result for star trek kirk drinks beer gif
via Tenor, mislabeled as McCoy on the site
 Literary notes
  • I am now curious about The Mutiny on the Bounty after Kirk renamed their stolen Klingon ship HMS Bounty.

Music notes
  • The score was composed by Leonard Rosenman, a friend of Leonard Nimoy's, after James Horner declined to return.  Rosenman had already won two Oscars and two Emmys.  The Voyage Home brought his fourth Oscar nomination.  

  • While on a city bus, Spock Vulcan-pinches a punk rocker when he refuses to turn down his music, much to the delight of the other bus occupants.  The song is called "I Hate You."  It was written overnight by Associate Producer Kirk Thatcher.  He formed a one-off punk band with a few production crew members called The Edge of Etiquette.

My ranking of the movies so far:
  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

On the Coffee Table: March Book Two

Title: March: Book Two
Writers: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Artist: Nate Powell
Image result for march book two
via Amazon
I first wrote of John Lewis's March in a post (gasp!) two years ago.  In October, Lewis is coming to the Flynn in Burlington to present the series and discuss his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.  We have tickets to see him so obviously I need to get cracking reading the last two books!

The March series reminds me of how much I don't know about the Civil Rights Movement.  I learned all about Martin Luther King, Jr. way back in elementary school, even read a biography on my own initiative.  In the year's since, of course, I've learned that the King part of the story, while certainly important, is in many ways the safe, comfortable part of the story for White people, especially northern Whites.  The movement predated him.  That makes sense logically but I didn't know any of the names.  There were organizers other than King with philosophies that conflicted with his and with each other.

And the violence was brutal.  I didn't learn anything about lynchings until much later.  As for the violence faced by the movement itself, it was mentioned though with far less detail than is presented in March.  The buses of Freedom Riders were bombed and people died.  When fire hoses were turned on peaceful marches and policemen wielded truncheons, people died.  Activists were murdered in drive-by shootings.  Others were maimed and crippled.  National media only seemed to pay attention when the victims were White.  Southern state governors did nothing to stop the violence and the federal response was also frequently underwhelming.  Yes, in retrospect Jim Crow laws and the like seem absurd.  But it wasn't really that long ago and racial disparity is still all too real, and not just in the South, either.  If anyone doubts the genuine heroism of those involved in the movement, read these books!

I had learned much of this in the years since but the March series makes it plain: I still have a lot more to learn.

Specifically, Book Two introduced me to the Big Six: King, Lewis, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.  All were leaders of prominent civil rights organizations during the height of the movement and were instrumental in organizing 1963's March on Washington, also included in Book Two.  King and Lewis were, in fact, the youngest of the six.  I would now like to learn more about the other four.

I have already read Book Three.  Hoping to post a review soon!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Squid Mixes: Tom Collins

According to 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson, a Tom Collins combines gin, 1:1 simple syrup, lemon juice and soda water.  As noted in this post, the distinction between a Tom Collins and John Collins is fuzzy but Simonson's awfully persnickety so I'll trust him.

The resulting drink was quite pleasant, a sweeter version of a gin & tonic.  Simonson recommends a lemon wedge and a brandied cherry for garnish.  My wife didn't see any jarred brandied cherries at the store so we may need to look into making our own - such a hardship!  I used a regular maraschino cherry this time.

Happy, Healthy Squid

I'm down half a pound this week so the weight now stands at B-8 (baseline minus 8 lbs).  I'm actually rather surprised.  I was not so well-behaved this week, missing my exercise goals twice, once by accident, once through laziness.  I was half-expecting a spike.  Surprises abound.

From my walks:

Monday, September 16, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Better Than Carrots or Sticks

Title: Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management
Authors: Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
Image result for better than carrots or sticks
via Amazon
Our faculty summer read was Better Than Carrots or Sticks.  There's a big push for restorative practices as a new approach to student behavior these days.  It is a philosophy born in the criminal justice system that has seen some success with meaningful implications for education.  Apparently, this traveling of ideas between prisons and schools happens a lot, in both directions.

Wikipedia defines restorative practices thusly: a social science that studies how to improve and repair relationships between people and communities. The purpose is to build healthy communities, increase social capital, decrease crime and antisocial behavior, repair harm and restore relationships.[1] It ties together research in a variety of social science fields, including education, psychology, social work, criminology, sociology, organizational development and leadership.

The book is well written and I appreciate the fact that the teachers are educators themselves who have put the principles into practice and found success.  Particularly meaningful, are the student reflections on the experience.  I am completely on board with the idea philosophically.  I will readily admit that it took me too long as a teacher to figure out that relationships are everything.  They are, in fact, far more important than content.  It's not even close.  The restorative work is not easy but, at least from what I've seen so far, it is worth the effort.

The problem in practice is that schools tend to move too fast.  They want to move from the old punitive model to the restorative with a single administrative directive and it doesn't work.  The shift involves glacial cultural change among all stakeholders.  Frustrations and setbacks are inevitable.  Patience on all sides can be severely tested.  The book, and many other resources on the subject, warn of this.   Districts heedlessly push on.  Again, I'm on board philosophically but the growing pains are considerable.

It's also a tough book to read in the summer.  I do my best to pretend I don't have a job in the summer.  In July, I mostly succeed.  In August, it's hard.  I can smell it coming.  A book about the most frustrating part of the job, especially, feels like an intrusion.  I know it's good for me.  But still.

If you're interested in the subject, Better Than Carrots or Sticks is a fine place to start.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Squid Flicks: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Title: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Original Release: 1984
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image result for star trek the search for spock
via Wikipedia
With the third Star Trek feature film, the Project Genesis story arc continues.  The Enterprise crew returns to port with heavy hearts.  Their beloved comrade Spock is gone.  To make matters worse, something's wrong with Dr. McCoy.  It would seem that through a last-minute mind meld before his death, Spock managed to preserve his own living essence in Bones's brain and the effect on the good doctor is unsettling to say the least.  A visit from Sarek, Spock's father played by our old friend Mark Lenard, clarifies the course of action: retrieve Spock's body from the Genesis planet, then bring both Spock and McCoy to Vulcan in order to resolve the matter.  Starfleet won't approve the mission.  Wouldn't make for much of a movie if our friends let them stop them, now, would it?

Meanwhile, the Klingons have learned of Genesis and want the tech for themselves, craving its destructive power.  When Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) and David Marcus descend to the Genesis planet in order to investigate animal life signs, they discover a resurrected Spock, now a small boy.  Unfortunately, all three are soon captured by the Klingons and David is killed.

As with The Motion Picture, I enjoyed The Search for Spock a lot more than I did when I first watched it back in the '80s.  However, in trying to correct the great injustices from The Wrath of Khan, the story generates as many new questions as answers.  I have two main issues with the story, one small, one enormous.  Let's tackle the small one first...

Kirk and his friends essentially commit mutiny when they steal the Enterprise out of dock to retrieve Spock.  To boot, Scotty sabotages the Excelsior, the Federation ship likely to run after them.  Obviously, we as the audience want our heroes to succeed but it feels icky ethically and, perhaps worse, anti-Trek.

Interestingly, there is precedent for this sort of behavior in the Star Trek canon.  In "The Menagerie," TOS's only 2-part story, Spock kidnaps Christopher Pike, his former commanding officer, hijacks the Enterprise and sets course for Talos IV, forbidden territory.  He risks not only court martial but execution.  By tale's end, he is found to have acted out of loyalty to Pike and is exonerated.  With one more movie to go in our current story arc, we don't yet know what consequences may be waiting for Kirk and company but we do know there is precedence for forgiveness.

The bigger issue is far more complicated: Spock's resurrection.  I can attest to the fact that at the time, the fans were happy to have him back.  Trek, at least at that point, was inconceivable without him.  30+ years on, with five spin-off series and counting plus movies and a mini-series without him as a principal character, we know the broader concept thrives beyond Spock.  But for the original cast of characters, he was essential.  That was the scary part of losing him at the end of Khan: was Star Trek finished?

Anyone who follows comic books, sci-fi, fantasy or soap operas is fully aware that you can never assume a character is permanently dead.  Even so, the "science" that brings back Spock is awfully sketchy.  I have less complaint over the Vulcan spiritual side of things.  Religion, after all, is the natural realm for such matters.  I suppose we can write off the science problems by stating that the full capacity of the Genesis tech was not fully understood - David suggests as much.  But why didn't Spock's rapid aging continue?  Were the Genesis affects lessened once Spock was off-planet or is Vulcan medicine just that good?  And why couldn't David's life be salvaged similarly?  Was it too late in the planet's own life cycle to be of any help?  What a shame that Saavik didn't think to mind meld with him in time!

It's fiction.  I can live with suspension of disbelief.  But it makes a guy think.

David's death and the destruction of the Enterprise - did I forget to mention that bit? - were intended as the big emotional impact moments for the movie.  David's death is certainly sad and Kirk takes it hard.  The effect on the audience would have been more profound, I think, with more development devoted to the character and his relationship with Kirk.

As for the ship, it just doesn't seem that big a deal now.  Mind you, it was startling at the time but hardly Spock-death shattering.  A ship is an inanimate object - important symbolically, sure, but ships can be rebuilt.  Obviously we know all these years later that there will be other, better Enterprise starships to come.  It's a moment with greater in-story impact than it has on the audience.

Trekkie treats
  • While The Search is not the best Trek movie, it does contain the saga's best Bones-Spock story.  The scene when Bones confesses his feelings of loss to an unconscious Spock is genuinely touching - perhaps the story's sweetest moment.
  • I appreciate the fact that the damage to the lift door on the bridge of the Enterprise was maintained from the end of Wrath of Khan - the smallest details can be the most meaningful.
  • There are Tribbles on a table at the bar on the spacedock! 

Real world topical notes
  • Kudos for taking on both scientific ethics and the weapons of mass destruction crisis in the Project Genesis story.

Actor notes
  • Kirstie Alley was not so enamored of Star Trek that she was willing to sign on as Saavik for the sequel.  She was worried about being typecast.  She was probably wise to see that her brighter future was in comedy.  Apparently, the woman is genuinely crazy funny.  Robin Curtis, another relative newcomer but one with a fortuitous friendship with the casting director at Paramount, won the role. 
Image result for robin curtis star trek
Robin Curtis via Memory Alpha
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Kruge via Memory Alpha
Image result for christopher lloyd back to the future
Doc Brown via Wikipedia
  • Two of the Klingons might seem familiar to television and sci-fi fans.  Christopher Lloyd won the part of Kruge, the leader of the Klingon band, over Nimoy's original choice, Edward James Olmos.  Already famous for his role on Taxi, Lloyd was still a year away from his career-cementing role: Doc Brown in Back to the Future.  Less well-known in 1984 was John Larroquette who played the part of Maltz, Kruge's right-hand man.  Night Court, on which Larroquette played the sleazy Dan Fielding, finished its first season the night before The Search for Spock opened in theaters.  Larroquette has since won five Emmys and a Tony.
Image result for john larroquette klingon
Maltz via Memory Alpha
Image result for john larroquette night court
Dan via Night Court Wiki

Music notes
  • James Horner returned for The Search for Spock.  The title theme, borrowing heavily from the Spock theme he had composed for Khan:

My ranking of the movies so far:
  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  3. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Squid on the Vine

I didn't know much about wine before I met my wife, nearly 21 years ago now.  I enjoyed drinking wine, though I would have considered myself more of a beer drinker at the time.  Still would, in fact.  My wife knew a lot more as she did with nearly all things food.  She also enjoys it more than I do and if anything, her preference for grapes over barley and hops has increased over the years.  Wine certainly intrigues me - for its own sake, certainly, but also as a vehicle for knowing my wife better.  We have long intended to invest time in learning more about the fruit of the vine - together.  Recently, I have become a lot more purposeful in my own explorations. 

Mission #1 is learning more about what I like.  I know a lot about what I like in a beer: hoppy is good.  I have learned quite a lot recently about my cocktail preferences: a whiskey base is a good start.  With wine, I have some work to do, especially with whites and rosés.  In fact, I'm not sure how I feel about rosés at all, let alone which ones I like. 
Image result for chateau musar
via wine-searcher
With reds, I'm chasing an elusive ideal.  Many years ago, my wife introduced me to Château Musar, a Lebanese winery.  The flagship red is a blend including Cabernet Sauvignon grapes among others.  It was basically one of the most extraordinary substances I have ever ingested, warm, jammy and spicy all at once.  I have never tasted its like since though whenever I encounter a red that seems to be heading in the same direction, I get awfully excited.  Our red on Sunday night, for instance, a 2017 Domaine Bousquet Malbec from Argentina had the spiciness but not the jamminess - actually slightly bitter, interestingly. 

My preferences in white wine are nearly opposite.  While I love a big, full-bodied red, I like a clean, lighter white - pale in color, not too sweet, though not exactly dry either.  A white wine should pair nicely with raw oysters: refreshing, cleansing, not too strong.  Portuguese vinho verdes tend to catch my eye.
Image result for wine folly book
via Amazon
To help me in my own self-education, I have a book, Wine Folly by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, and the Delectable phone app for recording my explorations.  We've already taken one class, on Chablis, at Dedalus, our favorite wine shop in Burlington and we're eager to take more.  As much as I can, I will share what I learn here.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Squid Flicks: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Title: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Original Release: 1982
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Image result for star trek the wrath of khan
via Wikipedia
While the first Star Trek feature film raked in nine figures at the box office, production came in way over budget.  A sequel was inevitable but Gene Roddenberry was forced out of creative control.  Whether that was the correct choice or not, the resulting movie was outstanding.  The Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as the finest Trek film of all.  I will go a step further: this is the best installment for the original characters period, television series included.  It's not a slam dunk winner but it's definitely in the conversation.  More on that in a bit.

There will be spoilers.  I think at 37 years, we're past the statute of limitations.

While leading a training mission, Admiral Kirk receives a message from Carol Marcus (Bibi Bisch), lead scientist on Project Genesis, a technology capable of generating life on a barren planet.  She is also, we learn, his ex-girlfriend and a significant one at that.  She is royally pissed off with him at the moment.  Kirk has no idea why but we, the audience, do.  Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), an old nemesis from TOS episode "Space Seed," has kidnapped Chekov and his current captain, Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield).  Khan is using his captives to manipulate Marcus into believing Starfleet is coming for her tech.  Kirk leads his Enterprise crew to go sort matters out with Marcus, not realizing he's walking into Khan's trap.

So, why is this movie the best one?  In order to address that, we have to acknowledge the narrative elephant in the room: Spock dies.  It is probably the most poignant moment in the entire franchise.  Many of the tech crew, including the cinematographer, were in tears during filming of the scene.  It's such a big deal that one easily forgets the other major bomb drop: James T. Kirk has a child!  Carol raised their son David (Merritt Butrick), now an adult scientist working by her side, on her own.  Those two elements alone put The Wrath of Khan in exclusive company among Star Trek's most significant stories.  But they're not the only reasons.

Placing Khan above the first movie is relatively straight forward.  In addition to shifting creative control, Paramount Pictures insisted on a smaller budget for the sequel.  The special effects aren't nearly as slick and the sets and overall production quality feel more like a television show than an early '80s sci-fi cinema classic.  As a result, it's more like Star Trek and that's a wonderful thing.  Less is more.  21st century filmmakers, take note!

More importantly, the script is several strata above the first one.  Give due credit to the editors as well.  This material is significantly kinder to Kirk.  He still has to make a case to lead the Enterprise as the job is beneath his official rank but he does so with reluctance rather than arrogance.  A story doesn't always require a likeable protagonist to be compelling - see Don Draper, Mad Men - but a Star Trek story does.  The hero can have flaws, and Kirk certainly does.  Who better than your best friends, your ex-girlfriend and your adult son to lay them out plainly for you?  But we have to root for his success.  I wanted to see Kirk get his comeuppance in the first movie.  In the second, I long to see his redemption.  Big difference.

Ricardo Montalbán deserves mad props as well.  Even with the death of Spock to compete with, Khan nearly steals the show.  Kirk is always at his best when sparring with a nemesis.  Khan is not my all-time favorite.  I prefer Mark Lenard's Romulan commander in "Balance of Terror."  But Montalbán's presence far outweighs his screen time.  And those pecs are real, folks.  Mr. Roarke was buff!
Image result for khan noonien singh
via Memory Beta
The emotional impact of The Wrath of Khan depends on investment in character and a significant debt is owed to stories past.  "City on the Edge of Forever," "Mirror, Mirror" and "Balance of Terror" are all strong consensus contenders for best TOS episode.  I'd throw my personal favorite "Journey to Babel" in there, too, especially for Spock development.  "Space Seed" ain't half-bad either.  Khan brings together so much of the best of Trek.  Indeed, there are strains of "Balance of Terror" in the submarine-like battle between Kirk and Khan.  I would never be one to downplay the importance of the journey and the combined effect of Spock's death and David's forgiveness are only enhanced by what has come before.  Nonetheless, the terrible and delicious feeling of "where on earth do we go from here?" at the end of Khan is new and exclusive territory for the overall Trek saga.  It's not a "Vader is Luke's father" level cliffhanger but it's still damn good.

Story notes
  • Much has been made over the years of a perceived continuity error.  Khan instantly recognizes Chekov (Walter Koenig) upon encountering him at the beginning of the movie.  The problem: Koenig didn't join the Trek cast until Season 2 of TOS and "Space Seed" is a Season 1 episode.  Out-of-canon efforts have been made to rectify the contradiction.  The novel To Reign in Hell establishes Chekov as a security officer at the time of the episode.  Koenig's own explanation is the funniest: Chekov was an off-camera character who stayed in the bathroom too long while Khan was waiting.

Acting notes
  • For Kirstie Alley, the role of Saavik was a dream come true.  She was a devoted Trekkie as a child, going to bed wearing Vulcan ears.  To be sure, she earned greater long-term fame as Rebecca Howe on Cheers but the Trek gig was a meaningful breakthrough.
Image result for saavik
via Memory Alpha
Food notes
  • Early in the story, Bones brings Kirk a bottle of Romulan ale as a birthday gift, the first canon appearance for the beverage or at least the first to be named as such.  There are blue drinks on the Romulan table in TOS's "The Enterprise Incident."   Naturally, there have been real-world attempts to produce and market the drink, including this recipe.

Literary notes
  • This latest rewatch has sparked my interest in the two 19th-century classics quoted in the dialogue: Melville's Moby Dick invoked by Khan and Dickens' Tale of Two Cities by Kirk.

Music notes
  • James Horner has composed well over 100 film scores and Khan was his big breakthrough.  He is probably the most successful score composer of the era not named John Williams.  His work is more conventional than Jerry Goldsmith's so this is actually one area where I give The Motion Picture the edge.  Still, Khan's music is effective, particularly the homage to the original series in the opening credits and the strains of "Amazing Grace" at the end.

  • How do you make the saga's most emotionally poignant moment even more heartbreaking?  You put Scotty on bagpipes.  

Upcoming events
  • Like The Motion PictureThe Wrath of Khan may also be coming to a big screen near you, though with a more glamorous presentation.  William Shatner himself is touring with the film, including promises of audience Q&A.  He'll be at the Flynn in Burlington in January.   I doubt we'll go as tickets aren't cheap but I'll be grateful for a report back if anyone else sees him.  We went to a similar John Cleese-led presentation of Holy Grail a couple years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

I grant George Costanza the last word:

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Carl Hiaasen

Title: Squirm
Author: Carl Hiaasen
Image result for squirm carl hiaasen
via Amazon
Our summer reading selection for the sixth grade was Squirm by Carl Hiaasen.   Billy Dickens is a teenager living in Florida - exact age never quite clear.  He's not old enough to drive legally but he does have a bagging job at the grocery store.  So, 14 maybe?  Wildlife is his passion, especially snakes.  He collects them, wild ones.  His family is quirky to say the least.  Mom moves house frequently so as to always be near a bald eagle's nest.  Dad disappeared years ago but has suddenly turned up again - in Montana.  The quest for a relationship with his father is the main narrative driver.

I've seen Hiaasen's books around for a while but this was my first time actually reading one.  The book was fun, though less artful in prose than I had hoped.  Hiaasen earns high marks for being topical: conservation, Native American quality of life.  But character and relationship development are over-simplified.  Moral superiority and poetic justice anchor the landscape.  Not much subtlety or nuance.  I long for the E.B. Whites, the George Seldens, the A.A. Milnes of yesteryear...  Squirm was pleasant enough but I doubt I will seek out Hiaasen's work again.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Healthy, Happy Squid: Losing Weight

For the first time in my life, I am making an active effort to lose weight.  It is sort of a couple's project for my wife and me, though so far the only thing we're both doing is weighing in each week.  I am by no means huge but I have put on about 50ish pounds since I was a scrawny teenager in the early '90s.  So losing some, while not doctor-mandated, is probably a healthy choice in the long run.  For now, I'm working on establishing healthier habits as opposed to dieting per se.  The trouble with diets, as I see it, is that most people can't wait to get off them and go back to their usual routines, thus putting the weight back on.  Instead, I would like to gradually change my normal and see where that gets me.

Image result for weight loss gif
via Giphy
I began in earnest in March.  Since my original weigh-in, I have lost 7.5 pounds (3.4 kg for you sensible metric types).  While there have been a couple of spikes, they've only been temporary and this new number - let's call it B-7.5, B for baseline; so baseline minus 7.5 lbs - has become my new floor.  The good news is that I have managed this modest loss with only two deliberate lifestyle changes: being more diligent about exercise and drinking more water.  The bad news is that if I'm going to go any lower, I'm going to have to tackle the much fiercer beast: food.  Let's celebrate the good first.

I'm a FitBit fiend.  Mine is a FitBit One and I generally afix it to a belt loop.  My goal right now is a green screen every day: 10,000 steps, 5 miles, 10 floors and 30 minutes.  The screen turns green if I make them all.  Or at least, it did until FitBit recently updated its phone app.  It still does a little fireworks show celebration but I liked the green screen better.

So far, things are going really well, though I know from past experience such habits set in summer can be really tough to keep up through a Vermont winter.  My default exercise choice, you see, is a long walk in our neighborhood.  It's a gratifying hobby.  We live in the woods and even on a rotten day, Vermont is still one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Partly as an incentive, and partly as a way to keep myself honest, I take photos during my walks and post one on social media each day, like this one:

In so doing, not only am I getting the exercise but I'm also going outside everyday, gaining a better appreciation from my surroundings and connecting with friends - wins across the board.

But some days are definitely easier than others.  In June, I felt as if I could point the camera (my phone, of course) in any random direction and catch dazzling colors.  Early spring, aka Mud Season, was a lot tougher.  I can bank on foliage season once it hits but after that?  It's a long, monochromatic winter.  Days will get shorter and I won't have as much time, especially during the work week.  Our private dirt road will get icy - treacherous for driving and, if anything, worse for walking.  And, of course, it will be brutally cold.  Hibernation instincts are powerful.  I don't worry so much about the exercise itself.  Even jogging in place is better than nothing and FitBit happily counts the steps all the same.  But with fewer opportunities to take pictures, I worry about losing the meaningful incentive they have provided.  Even so, I have time.  Perhaps I can find a meaningful indoor incentive to take the place.

Water is, so far, the only food habit I have addressed meaningfully.  I aim for 64 ounces per day, the recommendation for my body weight.  It's hard work.  But, apart from being a generally healthy habit, it also helps with appetite.  Often, when you think your body is telling you it's hungry, it's actually thirsty.  Miraculously, water fulfills a basic biological need and it has zero calories.

Food is going to be tough.  As my blog clearly suggests, I adore food.  It is my favorite hobby of them all.  Learning to eat less feels too much like learning to love less.  But maybe it will be less painful if I can look at it as eating more sensibly - establishing new habits just as I have with the exercise.  Thoughtfulness as opposed to systematic deprivation.

I need to learn more, about food in general and my own current tendencies.  I love dummy books and the like so I invested in one: Weight Loss Kit for Dummies by Carol Ann Rinzler.  Part V of the book is entitled Lifelong Weight Control.  It seemed a perfect place to start.

One of many suggestions Rinzler makes is employing a "food trigger tracker" to gauge when you're snacking.  I tried it this past week.  Fortunately, it would seem I don't snack as often as I might have guessed - or at least, I don't when I'm paying attention.  Even so, I have identified a few of my vulnerable moments: being stuck in a long meeting; doing a long, tedious chore; getting home from work (big one) and after exercise (notable yet understandable - and maybe forgivable?).  I also have a couple of enablers in my life who will occasionally put irresistible food in front of me.  One is a colleague, one is (sorry, Honey) my wife.  Yes, I know I can say no.  But I rarely want to.

Image result for homer doughnuts gif
via Giphy

Being hungry is no sin, nor is eating when you are.  The key, instead, is to make healthier choices in one's snacks: grabbing an apple instead of a box of crackers, for instance.  I have a lifelong passion for fruit, a passion I'm counting on to save me from another one, just as potent: baked goods.  In her Part of Tens, Rinzer supplies a list of diet-friendly foods, including a few surprises: water (huzzah!), skim milk, cantaloupe, tomato, lettuce, onions, grains (sadly, this does not include fluffy, gooey pastries), chicken breast, tuna fish and chocolate.  That's right, chocolate!  This is an especially helpful discovery in regards to my enabling colleague whom we shall call French Teacher.  She always has chocolate and she favors the really good European stuff.  Dark chocolate is best for my current purposes and I have told her so.  So far, she has been most accommodating.

Yes, I know, still best in moderation.  But it's a better choice than the Japanese rice crackers she knows I adore and which she also always has in ample supply.  Even an enabler can be diffused.  I think I can manage similar adjustments in other circumstances as well, especially at home.  My wife manages the shopping list but she is happy to take requests.

Next, I want to approach my meals differently.  For years, I've taken a light breakfast, medium lunch and a heavy dinner.  This is, of course, the exact opposite of what one is supposed to do so I want to work on inverting that, beginning with more at breakfast.  Apart from being generally healthier, I figure it might also help prevent my feeling famished by the time I get home from work.

So, I have a lot to work on - definitely a long-term, challenging project.  I'll keep you posted.  My history has taught me one very important thing about blogging: it helps to keep me honest.