When it first launched on PC six years ago, I played a little Star Trek Online. It was clearly made by people who love the show, but not so clearly made by people that knew what they were doing. In short, it was promising, but very rough around the edges.
This review will go on for a bit, so if you’re one of those 70% of people who never make it to the bottom of internet articles, the skinny is that it’s quite badly made in some places, really good fun in others, and there’s a very good amount of Trekkie stuff to check out for a free game and a 16 gig download.
This year when it was announced that the game would be coming to consoles, I picked up my character and decided to have another play to see what had changed. Immediately I was overwhelmed by the most complex interface and gaming system this side of EVE Online. Why were there at least five separate currencies used in the game? Why did I have to press 2 to fire torpedoes on one ship, CTRL+1 on another, and ALT+7 to do it on a third? Were the numerous graphical glitches a result of me playing on a not particularly impressive laptop, or were they symptomatic of continuing problems on the developer’s side? Spoilers for later: it was the latter.
Entirely flummoxed by a system that threw more data at me than a Brent Spiner fan collective, I started a new character hoping that tutorials would help ease me into the game again. And this is where that story largely becomes indistinguishable from my experience on console.
If you follow 90% of players and start off as a Federation character, you’re met with a surprisingly in-depth and decent character creation screen. Sex, build, and even race are up for grabs; if you don’t like any established aliens from the show, feel free to create your own. Thereafter you’re whisked off to the instantly familiar Starfleet Academy where, as a final year cadet, you’re awaiting your fleet posting. The game introduces you to the basics of the ground-based gameplay, including combat because apparently you can spend four years training as a security officer and never fire a phaser, before you’re taken on your first space tour, as acting first officer of a starship.
What follows is contrived, but since you’ll be commanding your own ship almost from the get go, some explanation as to how a group of snot-nosed cadets end up gallivanting about on the front lines absent direct oversight was required. Better origins are provided in the Romulan and Klingon storylines where you’re already an established officer, and since you’ll be promoted through the ranks quickly enough, you’ll soon forget about your entire bridge crew being the same age as Justin Bieber.
The Final Frontier, again
The interface is mercifully simpler on console, as indeed, it needed to be. In place of ALT and CTRL you have power wheels mapped to half the controller buttons, R2 for phasers, and R1 for torpedoes. Complicated and numerous buffs that soon mount up can be automated so you’re not trying to remember whether Engineering Team II repairs hull or shield strength in the middle of a firefight, and generally speaking, space combat is a joy.
Starting off in a Miranda-class frigate (that’s the Reliant from Wrath of Kahn, if you weren’t sure), you are weak, slow, but maneuverable enough with your phaser and torpedo systems roughly equivalent to a high powered flashlight and some conkers. Quickly you’ll be given the chance to upgrade and can choose from giant cruisers that are practically invincible but have a larger turning circle than Africa (think Picard’s Enterprise), more tech-minded vessels which strike a middle ground between power and speed (Voyager) and small, extremely quick ships that pack more punch than either (Defiant), but go down quicker than CM Punk in an octagon when it comes to a straight fight.
There’s a real sense of difference between the three, and picking a different class every ten levels will drastically affect your play style. There’s a certain arrogant thrill to be had from watching small fighters buzz around your vessel while your phasers lazily zap them away on autofire, but it’s genuinely fun to twist, dive (and, thanks to some graphical glitches, handbrake turn) your way around the battle field as a small craft, just waiting to finally lock on to someone your own size, or unload a barrage of pain on a capital ship’s rear end.
This is to say nothing of the fact that, though this wasn’t the prettiest game around even in 2010, Star Trek fans have never had such a good opportunity to play with the ships they’ve seen onscreen, and whether your favourite be Excelsior, Ambassador, Constitution, little known designs like Olympic or Saber, guest stars such as Nova or Prometheus, they’re all there to say hello to. Most are customiseable too and it can be great fun sat in orbit of Earth watching the different configurations come and go. The original design derivations which dominated marketing for the PC launch (or, “fucking arcade bastardisations”, if you prefer) are largely awful, but the classics are all there and there are some new gems hidden throughout.
Not all is well on the visual front in space though. The camera has three zoom levels, and each is based upon the assumption that you’re flying something the size of the Burj Khalifa. This is great when you’re in one of the big boys such as a Romulan Scimitar which is 1350m wide, but fly a twenty metre shuttlecraft about the place (yes, you can do that whever you want), and you’ll barely be able to see it. One mission is entirely taken up by a small craft dogfight in the skies above an under siege city which should be great fun, but the fact that even with your nose to the screen, you’ll barely be able to see your craft negates any fun that might have come from it.
Space presentation is split into two types. On the galaxy map you’ll be able to warp between familiar systems like Vulcan and Risa, occasionally running across a trade freighter or multiplayer shoot-em-up, and it typically strikes a decent mix of calm between storms allowing you time to install newly acquired updates & make some bad jokes on chat, and the crushing boredom of watching some pixels move across the screen for an age as you wait for something to happen a la EVE Online. Within systems, you can explore the ship graveyard of Wolf 359, disrupt your sensors in some very pretty nebulae, check out space stations and spend an inordinate amount of time posing your vessel in front of a star to see the different lighting effects on your hull. It’s a real shame that there’s no option to hide the HUD for screenshots because on occasion the results really are very pretty.
One thing that lacks is the sense of scale. Park your starting ship next to a top tier behemoth and you’ll notice the difference, but not quite as much as you should. Space stations that are identified as being over three miles tall never seem quite that big when you’re drifting by in a two-hundred metre garbage scow. Commands can fix these camera issues on PC, but on console (ironically) you’re stuck with how it is.
All I ask is a tall ship… and giants to crew it
These scaling issues continue to the ground levels where they are hugely exacerbated. Everything in Star Trek Online is too big on the ground. The relatively small bridge sets seen on the show are transformed into cavernous, empty , negative space deadzones, and racing to keep up, the furniture looks like it was built for the BFG. Characters almost never sit properly on their enormous chairs, instead perching on the edges, or just as often sitting on the floor in front of their consoles. Plonk a 5’9” female character in the Captain’s chair and she’ll look like a hobbit extra from Lord of the Rings. This will continue when you notice her sidearm; the sleek bottlenosed phasers of the show that fit as naturally in the hand as a TV remote are gone, replaced by foot-long monstrosities that belong in a geeky sex dungeon. And almost every other player you meet will seem like the descendant of Richard Osman because the default character height seems to be set at six and a half feet.
These are the voyages of the Starship MIKEYONE316
Storytelling in Star Trek Online varies in quality throughout. Some mission ideas are genuinely clever and not only take inspiration from the series and films, but actively expand upon them in new and interesting ways. An ancient race mentioned fleetingly in the series here is set up as a major villain. Characters such as Worf’s son Alexander are given more interesting roles than they ever were on the shows in occasionally touching ways and if you ever wondered what the next Enterprise would look like after Star Trek Nemesis, it’s Star Trek Online that gives you a satisfying answer.
But there’s also some dreadfully written dialogue, shoehorned references to the episodes a particular mission is drawn from as if the developers are scared you might not recognise everything they’ve put in and scream, “See! Remember this from Next Generation season 2? We got that from there! We’re fans!”
Furthermore everything is dominated by the lazy thinking that all players want to do in an MMO is fight. So the Klingons who, last we saw, were at peace with the Federation, are now at war with it. The Romulans who have been decimated by the loss of their home planet, are at war with themselves. Everyone in the Delta Quadrant is ready to shoot at Starfleet because of the seven years of hell they endured at the hands of Janeway (understandable that one, really), a splinter group of Dominion and Cardassian forces are trying to re-enact their lost war for no greater narrative reason than, “wasn’t Deep Space Nine awesome?”, and the Breen are doing whatever it is that Breen do, and trying to invade Federation space. This is to say nothing of the Tholians, Gorn, Remans, Orions, Mirror Universe, and shady illuminati types in the shadows, all of whom shoot on sight.
Star Trek Online isn’t the first or last Trek game to focus on combat more than diplomacy and with good reason, but other games have shown us that story isn’t something to be feared, and when you have a universe as vast and well-developed as that which exists for Star Trek, it’s criminal not to use that to further some gameplay which at least purports to be more than horde mode on Gears of War.
This is where Star Trek Online is at its worst. In one typical mission, you respond to a distress call from a freighter. After a brief chat with the captain where he tells you exactly what season of Voyager his people popped up in because everyone in the galaxy is as big a fan of the show as you are, it’s revealed to be an ambush and you are attacked by a ship. You destroy it and then are attacked by two more. You destroy them and… can you guess where this is going? At its laziest, the game simply throws waves of faceless drones at you, often acknowledging as much in the mission objectives list. There’s no narrative reason given for why they don’t all attack at once and blow you up, you’re encouraged to ignore the high improbability of you taking out ten larger warships than your own in one sitting, and there’s no real impetus to worry either, because if you die you’ll simply respawn as you would in an FPS and there’s nothing lost.Story and character; always more important to Star Trek than action, is forgotten.
Despite a few pretences, there are no moral choices in Star Trek Online akin to those you’ll find in Telltale or BioWare games. In the Romulan storyline, following the destruction of your homeworld some years earlier, you’re a refugee living on a colony when unnamed nasties show up and you’re left to flee with a rag-tag group of survivors. Seemingly pulled between two factions; the remnants of the military-intelligence complex and a group of rebels seeking a new home, there is no choice as to which you can join nor, despite a brief tease, any question that the rebels are good, and the Empire is bad. That sounds familiar.
With this newer expansion there was a real opportunity to break the mould of Star Trek Online and allow players to experience both a story and gameplay style that was far removed from the constraints of an upstanding Federation officer. Visually it starts off that way as your crew have no uniforms and look like a grotty group of pirates. Maybe you want to play the heroic rebel, but maybe you think that sacrificing a few forgotten colonies to restore the former glory of your people is worth it. Doesn’t matter. The game will force you into one path and away from the other.
To seek out new life and new civilisations, and blow the shit out of them
That being said, not everything you’ll do as a Starfleet officer is in keeping with characters like Picard and Data. In one mission, and not for the last time, your team is trapped in a gladitorial pit and forced to fight to survive. This has happened in almost every incarnation of the TV series so nothing seems unusual. Until you break out of the pit and proceed to slaughter absolutely everyone in the club next door. Not just the security staff, or the alien nasty who trapped you. Everyone. Bartenders, dancers, customers. People firing at you in self defence and people cowering behind tables. You kill them all. As you do, you pass by another gladiatorial slave, who bangs on the forcefield of her cell begging release. There is no option to free her amid your slaughter, and so she watches as you casually slay everythng that approaches like Stallone in the 80s, then leave her alone to watch fifty-plus corpses rot in front of her as she starves to death, alone in a cell. Starfleet protects the weak.
It’s an aberration; no other mission comes close to this level of casual murder, but it is jarring and it’s fascinating to wonder if there was any competent oversight during development. Never would such a scene have been allowed onscreen absent fallout, and though it’s the worst, it’s far from the only time Star Trek Online has spread the optimistic hope and joy of Gene Roddenberry’s future at the tip of a casually waved Gatling gun. Almost every hurdle you encounter throughout will involve you blowing up said hurdle, shooting the other runners, and nonchalantly jogging to the end of the race, only to do it all again tomorrow.
Fire at Will. Yes, that Will
Things aren’t helped by the enormous amount of bugs throughout. More than once you’ll see a character’s eyes bulge out of their forehead if the camera gets too close, making Vulcan mind melds seem much more dangerous than they ever did in the show. Missions objectives often fail to be acknowledged leaving you with no option but to start again, it’s easy to become stuck in environments, and to top it all off, combat on the ground just isn’t much fun. Holding L2 will lock you on to one enemy and, theoretically at least, swiping left or right on the right analog stick will change targets. This almost never works however, and the system is much more likely to target an enemy so far away they’re out of range rather than the Klingon charging you down with a giant sword. Worse yet, it makes no distinction between friend or foe, meaning that when an enemy dies and it automatically switches to the next target, you’re just as likely to throw a grenade into the back of your first’s officer’s skull as you are the group of enemies twenty metres away.
You can attempt to sidestep this by forgetting about L2 and firing away in freemode, but the camera never helps you with this (you also lose an attack bonus) and so you’ll eventually blast through ground segments as quickly as possible, hoping desperately that sometime soon you’ll be asked to beam up to your ship and destroy something larger.
The Vacuum of Space
At launch, there are a host of features, ships, and episodic content missing from the console version. Minigames that function like Extra Ops in Metal Gear Solid or contracts in Assassins Creed Brotherhood are entirely absent. An entire temporal war story thread (and The Original Series introductory levels that go with it) is notable by its absence. The ability to explore your ship and see engineering, sickbay et al is non-functional for most players, one particularly important story mission is so bugged it causes the entire game to crash for most players, and there are a number of mission giving NPCs from PC that on console simply standing around looking like badly drawn bouncers at a particularly jerky nightclub.
Doubtless much will be added in the coming months and there’s more than enough content to get you started, but PC players will find that this is a smaller, simpler game than the one they’re used to.
Of particular note is the lack of multiplayer at the time of writing. It’s almost an entirely solitary experience, bar passing other players in silence. That should change though as more players progress and unlock the higher level multiplayer scenarios and playing fields. Thus far my few fleet actions have been good fun; one particular highlight coming as a Sovereign-class cruiser upped their aggression levels and soaked up damage from a Borg cube (oh, yeah. They’re at war with the Federation too. Also Species 8742), only for me to fly out from beneath their hull in my Defiant and unleash a devastating volley of phaser cannon and quantum torpedoes the moment the enemy’s shields dropped.
I then got caught in the resulting explosion and died, but we don’t talk about that.
Once you have their money, you never give it back
Much has been made elsewhere of the not-so-microtransactions in the game. Buying a top tier starship will set you back twenty bucks and a uniform set such as that seen in Enterprise isn’t any cheaper which seems extortionate, but by the time you get to the level where you can fly such a thing, you’ll already have had tens of hours of game play for free and dropping the developer a monetary thank you doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. It is theoretically possible to gain currency for this without spending a penny, but to get enough will take serious grinding. You might be able to gain 30-40 free credits a day absent forking out then try to play the market, but that top level ship will set you back 3000. I was able to increase my cash by about 5% over the course of a day, so starting from scratch as opposed to paying £7.99 for 1000 really is taking the long way round.
Star Trek Online is a deeply, deeply flawed game. The joy of space flight and combat is matched by the boredom and monotony of ground play, and even the former can get trying in the game’s less inspired levels. It’s kept me coming back though, and there is a certain addictive quality. Is it because I’m starved for Trek and also decent space-based fun on console? Almost certainly, but it’s not just that. There are moments in both gameplay and script that are genuinely funny, some are touching, and others are impressive. It can’t be compared to Mass Effect or HALO, and probably not Infinite Warfare when that launches soon, but compared to other MMOs it keeps pace, if not exactly leading the pack.
And almost none of its competitors are on console. This is probably the best free game on PlayStation and while that is admittedly faint praise, it’s not nothing. You don’t need a PS+ membership to play it either, which is hearteningly surprising.
Trek fans should have no questions about whether or not to check it out. They’ll almost certainly have at least a few hours fun with it, and where else nowadays does that come without a price tag on console? Third person action fans will find nothing to love in the ground sections, but if you’re convinced that Star Trek Invasion was the last game of note based on this IP on console, the space combat should do you just fine.
It’s an overly simplistic and clickbaity headline, I know. Show me one that isn’t. Of course CBS Paramount’s new ‘guidelines’ for Star Trek fan films are their own responsibility and so, at the least, they must shoulder a weighty proportion of the blame. But by ignoring what caused their release, you’re ignoring the meat of the story.
Before we get to that though, what are the guidelines? Well, google them. I’m not your dad. Here’s the highlights though.
Your fan film can be no longer than fifteen minutes in length. You can extend this by making it a two parter, but that’s it. Two fifteen minute ‘episodes’. No sequels, no remakes, no continuations, nada. One stand alone story in two pieces lasting no longer than thirty minutes in total.
No props unless you bought them from official sources. Made a captain’s uniform at home with a sewing machine? Can’t use it. Got a friend who makes plywood phaser rifles? Nope. Turned your tablet into an LCARS padd? That might be okay, if only because I’m not aware of an official toy of the sort, but if CBS have a licensed product out there already, you’re not using an alternative.
There are also narrative constraints, and their scope is wider than a Galaxy class’s saucer section. You can’t depict drugs or alcohol, so bang goes Sickbay or Quarks. You can’t show any “offensive” behaviour which could quite literally cover anything CBS wish it to, you can’t show anything “disparaging” so your O’Brien/Bashir-esque banter has to go, no “hateful” or “threatening” content either so say goodbye to your antagonists.
In truth these narrative constraints sound very familiar to those set out by Gene Roddenberry when laying the groundwork for The Next Generation, but it’s easy to forget this far removed that the first two seasons of TNG, like The Motion Picture which Roddenberry was in charge for were… well, let’s just say they’re not the parts we get nostalgic about.
It’s fair also to note that CBS’s restricitons are more about overall themes than individual characters motives. You’d likely get away with a Klingon who hates Romulans, but the moral of your story can’t be that hatred of others is a perfectly fine thing to feel. So far, so Star Trek.
The most limiting of these rules are those concerning length, and production. Anyone who’s ever seen the excellent Star Wars short, Troops knows that you can make a great little fan film in ten or so minutes, but the majority of Trek fan films are based on an episodic structure; indeed the most celebrated are fully fledged series of 43 minute films. Many, if not most, have costume designers who work, with varying degrees of success, to mimic the costumes and uniforms seen on screen while constrained by a tight budget. CBS have nuked that idea, and purchasing the uniform, combadge, and pips from official supplier Anovos to dress up as Captain Janeway or her equivelant will set you back six hundred dollars. Picture a halfway populated bridge and your fifteen minute film has now cost you anywhere from $3000 to $6000 before you’ve shot a single scene.
The quickest skim of these rules then, reveals that fan films have basically been Red Wedded by CBS. They will allow you to crowdfund up to $50,000, which isn’t nothing, but who really wants to spend $50,000 on a half hour concept that they can’t use in any way in future? Star Trek fan films, never the most populous beasts to roam the Internet plains, are to become ever rarer.
But why? CBS have been fine with fan films for decades. There have been ongoing Star Trek fan series for as long as I’ve been using the Internet. They’re almost all dreadful, and the few that aren’t tend to be TOS-based which isn’t my thing, but because they were small, inoffensive, and crucially, didn’t make any money, CBS didn’t care. Why would they? A fan film is effectively free advertising for a franchise. LucasArts worked this out long ago, and though CBS have never embraced them to the same degree as their competitor, they knew that too.
Enter Alec Peters. Alec Peters is a fifty-five year old former volleyball coach who collects children’s toys and led his last company into bankruptcy owing creditors hundreds of thousands of dollars, and who describes his hair colour as “salt/pepper”. Which is fine.
Peters and some chums made Prelude to Axanar, an excellent documentary type short film set in the Star Trek universe. It met with near universal acclaim thanks to excellent visual effects, a tight script, and blessed lack of wannabe actors who would struggle to show more facial emotion than a Gerry Anderson character.
The goal was to intrigue people enough that they would contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to finance a full Axanar feature. This blog isn’t here to drown you with legalese, but in short, presuming the money is accounted for and all goes on the feature, this is generally fine. Strictly speaking every fan film you’ve ever seen is a copyright infringement, but as long as you pay your dues and don’t profit, most studios don’t give a damn. They’re not Konami, after all.
The trouble with Axanar is that all the money raised wasn’t going on the Axanar feature. Portions of it were going to Peters and Co. Effectively they were paying themselves out of the fund. Weasel wording aside, this is a textbook definition of “profiting” and they were doing it based on the Star Trek IP. Furthermore, funds were also being used to set up Peters own studio, which, it was planned, would go on to make for profit features. Effectively, the lure of a Star Trek fan film was being used to generate money to build something else, and line the pockets of those involved.
CBS, understandably, had something of an issue with this. Try to imagine this parable. You write and record a piece of music. You allow people to download it from the Internet for free, in exchange for the usual agreement that they won’t use it for public broadcast or to generate profit. If someone’s making money off it after all, it should really be you. Imagine then than James Cameron picks it up, and uses it as the main theme for the next Avatar movie trailer. The trailer has millions of views, Cameron gets the ad money from YouTube for this, and thereafter, Avatar 2 makes a billion dollars in large part because the trailer convinced people to go and see it. You get nothing. Wouldn’t you be pissed?
This is pretty much the same thing that Peters did to CBS. CBS are legally recognised as the creators and owners of Star Trek. What happens with Star Trek is up to them and you can’t do anything with it that they don’t want you to. This includes, but is not limited to, using their brand to crowdfund tens of thousands of dollars for yourself. Surprising, I know.
So CBS sued Peters, and rather than, “hey bud. Sorry about that. My bad,” Peters countersued CBS trying to alledge that among other things, they didn’t own the copyright to Vulcan ears. This lawsuit by the way, was also paid for using funds from the original crowdsourcing. Fans who had paid for a new Star Trek film, were instead paying for a new studio, Peters wages (some $30-40k per annum if I recall, but don’t quote me), and the frivilous lawsuit he winged at CBS to divert attention from the fact that he’d broken the law.*
- – Allegedly, of course, each man being innocent till proven guilty, and this apparent evidence of Peters breaking the law isn’t proof that he broke the law or that he is a lawbreaker until of course a court of law decides that he broke the law and is a lawbreaker. I’m just saying it looks like he broke the law and is a lawbreaker.
Cue an effective media campaign launched by Peters & Co. CBS was “picking on” the fans. They “were jealous” that Axanar was looking better than Justin Lin’s Fast Stars & Furious Treks (which in fairness, looks to have all the charm of a hypocritical Simon Pegg moaning about comic book films and sequels propping up Hollywood). CBS were only suing Axanar because the fundraising had been so successful. They wanted the million dollars that had been raised. The CBS network is worth about $30 billion, but sure, they wanted the $1m Peters had raised.
You can pick whichever side of this you choose. You can criticise CBS for not supporting fan films. You can call Peters a dishonest money-grubbing git. You can pledge never to watch another Star Trek feature again (no one will ever believe you because you’re lying, but you can pledge nonetheless), you can ignore the whole thing because Star Trek will go on as it always has, and you’ve never really felt like you were in need of extra hammy acting, ropey special effects, or surprisingly impractical clothing beyond that you already get onscreen.
But it remains a fact that CBS never felt the need to lay down the law until Alec Peters and his friends decided to profiteer off fans desire to see ever more of a beloved franchise. So fine. I retract the headline. CBS is the one killing fan films.
But it was Alec Peters that inspired them to do it.
Nb – 29/06/2016 14:00 – This article originally stated that monies from the crowdsourced fund were being used to fund Axanar‘s legal case. Thanks to readers who pointed out this error below. Axanar’s legal team agreed to work on a pro bono basis, and I’m happy to acknowledge that here.
No intelligent discussion of stylish television, action scenes, sex on screen, or sheer pulpy pleasure can be complete now without mention of Cinemax’s first ever original drama, Banshee. That alone is a hell of an achievement. Thanks to an excellent ensemble cast, visual direction every bit the equal of Hannibal, Breaking Bad, or anything you’ll see on the silver screen, and characters more layered and intriguing than they ever needed be for a guilty TV pleasure, the show will rightly be remembered as a cult classic and one which will hopefully serve as a career springboard for the many talented people who worked on it.* And yet, you can’t talk about Banshee; a show which screamed from the mountaintop in primal exaltation, without discussing its abysmal, whimpering, limp-wristed, hobble-off-into-the-night, final season.
* – My shout, for what it’s worth is that Anthony Starr would be superb as the morally assaulted Commander Shepard should the Mass Effect movie ever get going, but don’t hold your breath.
Banshee season four, for a variety of reasons, was barely the same show as the one that proceeded it for three years. A change of filming location didn’t help – Banshee went from being a town you could imagine driving through in five minutes to a urban sprawl and so the, “small town; big trouble” cells that ran through the show’s blood were immediately weakened. Gone was the charm of a cop shop in an old Cadillac showroom, replaced by… well, a police station. How dull is that?
A needless two-year time jump didn’t help matters either. This has always been a lazy writers’ technique for character development and only rarely, as in the case of Battlestar Galactica’s season two finale does it ever really justify itself with a payoff that simply couldn’t have been achieved another way.
Then there was sidelining beloved characters for new ones which added nothing to proceedings. Bringing in the talented Eliza Dushku as a junkie FBI agent was largely pointless. There was never any threat (as there had been with Zeljko Ivanek’s Fed), of Hood’s past being discovered. Having established Brock as Sheriff, a new investigator wasn’t required. Hood’s ‘new’ love interest of the year was Rebecca, who, for no narrative payoff whatsoever, was pregnant with his baby before she was murdered off screen so Banshee could swap action drama for a police procedural format.
New officer I’m-sure-she-had-a-name-but-who-honestly-remembers as Proctor’s spy in the Banshee Police Department was never given enough development for anyone to care as to her motivations or fate, and so when her end came, no one cared. Speaking of Proctor, that whole becoming mayor thing never really went anywhere, did it?
Job had been kidnapped at the end of season three and his absence for the first half of season four left a chasm in the show’s landscape. Hoon Lee as a crossdressing, gun-toting, whisky-swigging, foul-mouthed, hacker has been one of TV’s most charming characters in years, and his exasperated, “it’s about fucking time,” upon his return was surely echoed in every living room as it happened.
Then there was Sugar; the first friend our hero made in Banshee. Wise ex-con bartender may not be a new role, but Frankie Faison brought good humour with an undercurrent of darkness to it, and his reward was being reduced to a bit part for most of the final season. Deva and her brother are non-entities too – the latter doesn’t appear at all.
Banshee has always matched its heroes against TV’s best comic-book villains, who remain in the mind long after their runs (often single episodes) are done. Nola Longshadow who tomahawked her way into one of TV’s finest ever fistfights. The Jason Statham-like cockney assassin who feeds the birds Scotch-soaked bread while calmly discussing his own mortality. Olek who loved Ana dearly, but whose loyalty to her father meant he would kill her if need be. The enormous bookkeeper who was too fat to fit in a car and so was transported everywhere in a pimped-out lorry. The terrifying albino who seemed physically invincible. Chayton Littlestone whose dreams of a native American violent revolution at times seemed entirely plausible. Mr Rabbit, whose wrath would hunt Hood to the ends of the earth for vengeance. Kai Proctor, who openly defied God to strike him down for his crimes, but privately wished only for redemption in his mother’s eyes.
And a bespectacled, bow-tie wearing, silent aide. Yes. Banshee did bad guy very well indeed.
And as part of this, it had built up its local Nazi population as future villains-in-chief from early on in its first season. When they executed a black police officer – one of the show’s few entirely good and honest guys – his wife, and their unborn child, it was easy to hate them and wish for their destruction. When they blowtorched the skin off a young officer who had left the Brotherhood and tried to start a better life for himself, we knew they would be the primary threat to our heroes in the last ever season.
Except they weren’t. There was a new Satanist serial killer and his death cult. On paper, a man believing he acts on the word of the Devil is absolutely ridiculous enough for this show. But to stretch it over seven episodes in a not-particularly-interesting serial killer plot? That’s never been what Banshee’s about. You’d be forgiven for thinking this season had been given over to trialling a new show as the final season of The Practice did for Boston Legal. Eliza Dushku in a noir detective thriller, anyone? Oh wait, Netflix kind of did that already.
And why did anyone bother bringing in the Colombian Cartel for a cameo? The Nazi Senator? (always nice to see Frasier’s Bulldog, mind you.)
Then there were the fights. Oh dear Lord, the fights. Daredevil is understandably lauded for its choreography but next to Banshee’s Lucas Hood, Matt Murdock is a ballerina. Remember the corridor scene in Daredevil’s second episode? Banshee did it first. Nola’s one-shot battle with Burton in, around, and through a classic Rolls Royce was stunning. Ana’s episode-long fight to the death with Olek was tear-inducing. Hood fighting for his life at the side of a road while eighteen wheelers scream past, his desperate struggle to survive in prison, his arresting of a rapist cagefighter. All were a visual feast of brutality TV hasn’t seen since Spartacus and Crixus fought the Romans.
Throughout it all has been the unspoken promise that we would eventually see Hood face off against Burton and while the show’s final episode did deliver this, it paled in insignificance given what had come before. Like the rest of season four, this fight just didn’t come close to the energy of what preceded it.
Showrunner Jonathan Tropper made a point of often saying not everyone would make it out the series finale in one piece, and yet, they pretty much did. Ana got her children back. Hood got to ride off into the sunset. Job returned to metropolitan civilisation, Brock got to be Sheriff of the sleepy town he loved, Bunker settled down with his love and her child, and Sugar retired a millionaire. No one likely has a complaint about this; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending, but it’s not what we were promised.
Banshee had a good final episode to a miserly final season to a superlative television show. As one friend suggested, you could always imagine it was cancelled after its third season and leave it there. Rocky V, as we all know, never really happened. Maybe Banshee season four didn’t either.
And maybe that would have been for the best. Something seems to happen to shows in their fourth seasons. The West Wing, which for its opening two seasons was as fine as television has ever been, struggled so much in its fourth year to get traction that Aaron Sorkin quit the show. Of the many hilarious episodes in Steven Moffat’s Coupling, no one’s favourite is in season four. Sherlock’s fourth ‘season’ (the Victorian Christmas special) was universally panned. Luther, which is arguably the best police drama the BBC has ever produced, had a two episode by-the-numbers fourth run. Channel 4’s chavtastic Misfits never really recovered from the loss of so many of the original stars and the fourth season was the beginning of the end. Battlestar Galactica which tore the label of best ever sci-fi series from Star Trek and never gave it back, nevertheless had a confusing, disappointing, and muddled fourth and final year.
Banshee. Sweet, beautiful Banshee went from a blazing hot sun of stylish and emotive action drama to… well, nothing of any note whatsoever and the scenes we wanted to see were largely absent. Brock finding out the truth about Hood was good, but it was one standalone scene sidelined by a lame serial killer plot, rather than built up to and savoured over time. Proctor always knew there was something off about Hood; how would he react to finding out the truth? What exactly was the familial connection between him and Sugar? Who wouldn’t have preferred to spend more time with Rebecca scheming to take over her uncle’s crime empire and risking likely death at his hands than see her serve as a plot point for a story no one wanted told? What, exactly did Hood becoming a hairy hermit accomplish? His finally leaving as Sheriff wasn’t worthy of a scene? Why wasn’t every episode just Sugar and Job flinging lovable barbs at each other before retiring to Tahiti together to set up a cocktail bar & hairdressers?
Banshee remains in my top ten list. It is a wonderful show, and one I’ll enjoy revisiting for many years to come. But if it teaches us anything about making television, it’s that maybe, just maybe, you should plan to end things by the end of your third year, and if you want to make a different show, go make one. But don’t change a winning formula as Jonathan Tropper said they explicitly set out to do after the action-laden season three. Don’t keep the brand and change the format. We deserve better as viewers.
And Banshee deserved better as a show.
“Captain Jean-Luc Picard, you lead the strongest ship of the Federation fleet. You speak for your people.”
“I have nothing to say to you! And I will resist you with my last ounce of strength!”
“Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.”
“Impossible! My culture is based on freedom and self-determination!”
“Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.”
“We would rather die!”
“Death is irrelevant. Your archaic cultures are authority-driven. To facilitate our introduction into your societies, it has been decided that a human voice will speak for us in all communications. You have been chosen to be that voice.“
That (as if you didn’t realise) is an exchange from Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically a particularly famous two-part episode entitled, The Best of Both Worlds. For both of you that don’t know, the Borg were a race of cybernetic nasties defined by suprememly powerful technology, a hive mind and a single-minded determination to achieve their goal, namely the assimilation of all other cultures into theirs. They’re undoubtedly the most terrifying bad guys Star Trek ever threw at us, which is why I can only assume no one at Better Together headquarters is a fan of the show.
You see if they were, they’d remember the title of this episode. It’s very famous in Star Trek circles. And yet Better Together’s latest Twitter push is based around the hashtag, #BestOfBothWorlds.
In another context, it’d be quite nice. We live in a post-Trek world however, and so for millions of us, that phrase means Patrick Stewart getting robotted up, and puts us in mind of the Borg.
A hive mindset, intent on eliminating cultural and social individuality. “Your culture will adapt to service ours. Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant.”
Now I think about it, maybe someone at Better Together is a Star Trek fan, and they knew exactly what they were doing.
note. For clarity, the poster was by me, not BT. Even they’re not that daft.
Pacific Rim may well be Guillermo Del Toro’s worst film to date. Not having seen all his others I don’t feel qualified to judge. I can say this though. It’s a fuckload better than Transformers. Not that this is saying much, mind you. Pretty much the entirety of everything ever is better than Transformers, but given that both that and this are basically about giant things beating the crap out of each other, it bears mention here.
Kicking off with its simple premise and never straying too far into complexity thereafter, Pacific Rim is painting by numbers storytelling, and quite a few of the brushstrokes go outside the lines. The opening sequence is dedicated to a brief history of what’s going on. This film is about the end of the war (spoiler alert: we beat the evil aliens), not the beginning. So there are some nice shots of a jock-off monster invading San Francisco with the obligatory, did-the-bridge-survive-unscathed; no-of-course-not shot, a rush forward to humanity coming together in the face of a common threat to build the world’s biggest beat-em-ups, and then we’re informed that we were winning the war easily. Since this wouldn’t work for the film, something has to go wrong.
So we see our hero and his brother who both pilot the American Jaeger (Jaeger is the German word for ‘fuck-off big robot with plasma cannons and a sword’) notable mostly for being the blandest design in the film and for encouraging a whole generation of kids to misspell ‘gypsy’. They both pilot it because one person alone can’t handle it; the toll on the mind is too great. So of course we’ll later be treated to a scene where our hero pilots it alone, probably after some sort of emotional trauma, maybe like losing a brother.
The script is so straightforward, the only shock about this inevitable string of occurrences is that it happens so early, because big bro is killed off during the first fight and Hero Boy pilots the thing back to land. Then he disappears for five years. As you do.
The meat of our tale begins when Idris Elba’s Nick Fury character is told that despite the fact the Jaeger program has killed off every alien that’s come to Earth, it’s being shut down so we can build a wall around the Pacific Ocean (said Rim is where a wormhole lets them into our world). As everyone watching knows, this wall is doomed to failure, but thus far only Air Marshall John Luther is smart enough to see it.
On cue though, five minutes later the wall is breached and the Australian Jaeger beats the shit out of an alien. The good military man was right all along, and the silly politicians were wrong. Doesn’t quite explain why their decision wasn’t immediately reversed though. The shutdown still goes ahead despite the obvious risk to national safety. Wait… that reminds me of something…
Don’t try to read that much into Pacific Rim, because there’s nothing under the gloss. Hero Boy’s trepidation at getting back in the cockpit is due to the fact that the piloting software requires pilots to literally enter each other’s minds, so he felt what his brother felt as he died. This is forgotten in less time than it took me to write this paragraph.
When he agrees to come back, he needs a new co-pilot and we’re immediately aware that it will be Hot Chick despite Authority Figure saying no. This is due to very serious reasons as we can see from Elba’s stern expression, but which are forgotten just as quick as Hero’s traumas and he changes his mind for no discernable reason.
These serious problems are evident as when linking with the machine, Hot Girl has a nightmare and nearly kills everyone on the base. She’s suspended because this has clearly never happened before, hence the lack of a safe training environment where mass manslaughter would be impossible. It probably takes about ten minutes before this too is forgotten, and she’s back out there.
We’re introduced to other pilots and Jaegers as well who play nicely to the stereotypes. The Asians wear red and have a technologically advanced robot, the Russians are bleach-blonde-burly and have a massive hulk of antiquity and the Aussies look like they’d be more comfortable surfing in their slick machine. Each and every one of them may as well be wearing T-shirts that say ‘expendable’ on them.
There’s some forced competition between Hero and Aussie guy that wishes it was as emotionally complex as Maverick and Iceman, which ends up not so much being resolved after Hero saves Ausman’s life, but forgotten. Less, ‘you can be my wingman’ and more, ‘I know I walked in here for a reason but I’ve forgotten what it was…’
Meanwhile, Elba is revealed to have been a solo Jaeger pilot back in dem old days, by whom the great toll was paid. If he gets into the cockpit again, he tells Hero, he’ll die. We’re left to pretend to wonder for less than five minutes whether or not he’ll end up in the cockpit again, and only slightly longer before we find out he’ll ‘sacrifice’ himself to help save the day.
The amount of questions you could ask throughout are legion. How do these bipedal machines walk in water when the ocean bed is miles below? Why didn’t they just build bigger Jaegers when the aliens started getting too big to deal with? Why did the hero spend five years off the grid instead of reporting back in? Why did they have such a hard time finding him? Was no one tracking the giant robot he was in? Why did they shut down a functional defence plan in order to build a wall that even a kid could see wouldn’t work? Why didn’t they go back to the good plan straight away when said wall got knocked over? Why did the aliens chase after one man who melded with them, but not another who did it before him? What was Idris Elba doing with a little girl’s shoe for twenty years? How did hero’s girlfriend nearly kill everyone the first time she merged with the machine? Don’t they have safeties on these things? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of a noble sacrifice if the character survives through a suicide mission?
It’d be easy to guess from the above that I hated it, but I didn’t. There’s always a place in my heart for big dumb fun, and it doesn’t get much bigger or dumber than giant robots versus giant monsters. It’s nice that it has nods to its spiritual predecessors; having the majority of the action take place in Godzilla’s Hong Kong rather than anywhere in the US is nice, and the special effects are great; there’s a real sense of weight to the machines that’s completely absent with Michael Bay’s juckin’ n’ jivin’ Transformers. It’s also nice that though Hero Boy is the clean cut American protagonist of old, his chums are international throughout, at least attempting to buck the ‘America saves the World™’ trend. The fight scenes are good (albeit not great) and it’s refreshing to see a film that makes no excuses for what it is and ditches practically all the fluff you’d otherwise see in a summer blockbuster of this type. The romance, tragedy, humour, backstory, politics and edifying are all as naught to fuck-off big robots belting fuck-off big monsters with fuck-off big fists. Pacific Rim is a solid 3-star film if you don’t look too closely at the details.
The moment you do though, you’re lost. I had to consciously fight to ignore the above and so enjoy myself. There were moments where I swear to God, I was actually saying the characters’ dialogue verbatim along with them, it was that predictable. It’s a phenomenally simple film, is too mainstream to be a cult classic and too average to be remembered, but it’s not that bad. There’s nothing wrong with big dumb fun. Trouble is, if you watch other summer sci-fi blockbusters like Star Trek or Independence Day, you’ll immediately be reminded that even big dumb fun can have charm and emotion. Pacific Rim has robots hitting monsters in the face. And they’re fuck-off big.
Was bored t’other day. Did picture. Yes, I like Star Trek. Yes, even before it was cool.