Archive for February, 2018

Looking for work

February 26, 2018 4 comments

As I mentioned a couple of months back, this past year has been a dry spell for my writing career, due to several different projects being unexpectedly and simultaneously subject to massive delays. Since I kept expecting one or more of these projects to pay off much sooner than it has, I didn’t do enough to look for alternative sources of income, and now I’m in a tight spot financially, in need of something to tide me over until things start moving again. So I’ve finally started trying to look for some kind of non-writing job to fill the void, something that will pay off sooner and more regularly than the various writing projects I’m currently pursuing.

The thing is, I’ve been a full-time writer for so long that my job-hunting skills — which were never all that good to begin with — have become rather atrophied. Ideally, I’d like to line up some kind of writing-related work that I could do from home, like perhaps a column for a website or a copyediting job. But I’ve never quite figured out how to look for that kind of work. On the advice of a couple of colleagues, I’ve signed up with the job-search site Indeed, but I’m still figuring out how to make use of it. I’ve also tried applying for a job at the local public library, something I’ve tried to do a number of times in the past without success, but I figure it couldn’t hurt to try again. The most fulfilling non-writing job I’ve ever had was the 3 years I spent as a student shelver at the university library in college. I love working with books — imagine that.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was more unsure of my options and kind of panicking about what to do, I got an e-mail out of the blue inviting me to come interview for a temp job at a business out in the suburbs. At first, it seemed like a job I might be content to do; the long drive and long hours were less than ideal, but I couldn’t afford to settle for ideal. And I was paralyzed by having too many options to consider, so having one clear option to latch onto felt like a lifeline. Still, as the day of the interview approached, I became more and more unhappy at the prospect of the job — not only was it a long way away, but it was the kind of full-time office job that I’ve always wanted to avoid — but the pay that was offered seemed too good to pass up, and I needed something that would pay off quickly, so I saw no choice but to make the tradeoff.

On the day of the interview last week, though, I quickly realized the job had more negatives than I thought. The introductory speech we were given specifically mentioned that they wanted people who could suppress their own opinions and slavishly follow the rules — which didn’t feel right either for me or for the kind of work it was. The person who interviewed me seemed to be just mechanically following a script and didn’t have any useful, non-packaged answers to my questions and concerns. And I discovered that the work wouldn’t begin right away after all; I couldn’t expect to see any money until the start of April. Once I realized that, it resolved the conflict. There was no tradeoff, no difficult choice to make; the job simply didn’t have any positives for me, period. The moment I realized that I’d have to look for something else instead was surprisingly liberating. Before the interview, I’d expected that if I didn’t get the job, I’d be panicked, not knowing what to do next. Instead, I felt incredibly relaxed and relieved once I got out of there, as if I’d dodged a bullet. Which tells me I really would’ve hated that job.

If nothing else, I think that the mental work I did convincing myself to try out for that job despite its drawbacks has helped firm my resolve for further job searching. It’s made me think “I can do better,” and I hope that will turn out to be true.

So if anyone out there needs a columnist, a reviewer, a copyeditor, a transcriber, or the like, I’m available. And of course, I’m still taking donations through PayPal in the meantime. Even if I do find work soon, any help my readers can provide would be of real benefit to me in the short term.

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Minor update to ONLY SUPERHUMAN Historical timeline

Today I had occasion to glance over the Only Superhuman Historical Timeline page here on my site, and I noticed it was a bit outdated in some of the details, as well as containing a significant typo in one entry (with the word “And” and several spaces inserted somehow in the middle of a word). In particular, I referred to the conflict in 2076 as the Belt War, a leftover term from early drafts that didn’t appear in the final text of OS, whereas in “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” (Analog, June 2016) I’d renamed it the Orbit War, since it was as much between Earth and its orbital habitats as between Earth and the Asteroid belt. (The Orbit War name also appears in the historical appendix to my upcoming collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman). I also realized that the description I’d given of the conflict didn’t quite jibe with “Cislunar” or with the background given in the first chapter of OS. So I made some tweaks to the Timeline text to make it more cohesive. (I also updated “Belt War” to “Orbit War” on the Character Profiles page for the novel.)

Only Superhuman MMPB coverIn the course of doing this, I discovered a convergence that had never occurred to me. In Chapter 3 of OS (the first flashback chapter), when Emerald Blair’s father Richard is explaining the backstory of the Earth-Strider tensions to his young daughter, he says at one point that, as a pacifist, he couldn’t fight in “the war or the troubles that followed,” meaning the dissolution of the Strider states into chaos and internecine struggles in the years after the war. It struck me that if that period had actually been known as “the Troubles” (also the term used to refer to the Northern Ireland conflict of the 1960s-90s, a similar era of political/social strife and violence), that would provide a nice explanation for how the superpowered peacekeepers who emerged to save lives and promote order during the period came to be known as the Troubleshooters. I’d always assumed that they’d picked up that nickname before then, and there are lines referring to early Troubleshooters’ involvement in the war, but those lines are in retrospect, spoken years after the fact, so the name could be applied anachronistically. Even if some of these private vigilantes were informally called “troubleshooters” before the actual Troubles in the early 2080s (and before the Troubleshooter Corps’s founding in 2083), it could’ve been the reason the name caught on during and after them. It’s got a nice resonance, and it doesn’t overtly contradict anything in the text, so it works. Indeed, I wonder if I might have had something like this in mind when I wrote the line “the troubles that followed,” but didn’t remember it later on.

In real life, I chose the name “Troubleshooter” because I initially envisioned the characters as an elite class of problem-solvers within a larger Solar Security Bureau, before I realized the premise worked better without a central Solar System government and started over from scratch with OS. But with that backstory gone, the etymology of the name “Troubleshooter” for what were now outright superheroes became a bit more random. I kept it because I wanted to stress that my heroes were primarily problem-solvers, not just fighters. But this new insight gives the name more of an in-universe justification. And it fits neatly, because in OS I used the word “trouble” as a recurring motif in chapter titles and dialogue (including the Green Blaze’s catchphrase, “Looking for trouble? You just found her.”) I’m kind of surprised I didn’t think of it before. Whether I ever get to use it in an actual story remains to be seen, though.

Anyway, this is a reminder to be more careful about curating my website content. When I check the text of my stories to ensure they’re consistent with each other, I don’t always remember I have further material on the site. That material may not be strictly canonical, but I should remember to check it for consistency with new stories. I’m glad I caught this before the release of Among the Wild Cybers, which will hopefully bring some new readers to my site.

I’m writing for the STAR TREK ADVENTURES role-playing game!

February 17, 2018 2 comments

I’m now able to announce another one of the writing projects I’ve been working on over the past few months. I’m writing campaigns/game scenarios for the Star Trek Adventures role-playing game from Modiphius Entertainment. This is a new tabletop RPG that debuted last year, with a lot of the writing being done by fellow Trek prose authors that I know from the Shore Leave convention, including Jim Johnson (who’s the line editor in charge of the writers), Dayton Ward, and Scott Pearson. So last year at Shore Leave, I asked Dayton and Scott if I could get on board, they put me in touch with Jim, and here I am.

Star Trek Adventures has several different game threads. There’s the Living Campaign, which you can sign up to join at the site, and which has ongoing storylines in the Original Series and Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager time frames, written largely by Dayton Ward and Scott Pearson. (EDIT: Rather, I’m told that Dayton & Scott created the basic outline of the Living Campaign, but other writers are doing the regular installments.) There are also a bunch of standalone adventures, which are being written by various different authors, including me, and will be available online as PDF downloads. These are self-contained “episodes” that gaming groups can play in one or two sessions, usable for just about any set of characters. They’re usually set in a specific time frame, but most can be adapted for play in different Trek eras if the players desire.  And of course, Gamemasters can buy the Core Rulebook and use it to create their own campaigns as well. Indeed, we’re encouraged to conclude our standalone campaigns with hooks for possible sequels/continuations that GMs can develop themselves.

I’ve never really gotten into any Star Trek or other role playing games in the past. There was that time a while back when a college friend worked with me on a two-person e-mail game we called Dragon Trek, where I played a Starfleet character who got transported into a Dungeons & Dragons world that she ran as the Dungeon Master. It was her attempt to ease me into gaming by combining our different interests into something we could share, and it was fun for a while, but unfortunately she got too busy with family and parenting, so we never really got past the preliminaries. But the character I created for that game was the basis for the T’Ryssa Chen character I debuted in Star Trek: The Next Generation — Greater Than the Sum about 7 years later.

Aside from that, though, I never really got into gaming, particularly Trek games, since it seemed to me that they often tended to focus far too much on combat and war scenarios, which are not my preferred thing for Star Trek to be about. What drew me to the Star Trek Adventures game is that its focus is less on fighting and more on plot and character development, emulating the structure of Trek TV episodes. Character creation is focused less on physical skills and training (since all Starfleet officers are presumed to be experts to begin with) and more on personal attributes like Control, Insight, Daring, Presence, and Reason, as well as personal values and life experience. For instance, the character creation process even includes a step where you choose a couple of important “Career Events” that give your character backstory and inform their behavior in the here and now. I found that so intriguing that I made a point of developing a campaign that would bring the characters’ backstories into play in the main story. (No, it’s not a time travel campaign.)

The goal of gameplay in STA is not merely to gather loot or gain combat experience points, but to advance character development by challenging the character’s values and achieving personal milestones depending on how those challenges are resolved. There are combat mechanics, but they’re a subset of the larger set of Conflict mechanics that focuses more heavily on Social Conflict, i.e. persuasion, reasoning, deception, negotiation, intimidation, etc. Action is presented more in terms of Tasks and Challenges to overcome, which can be anything from winning a fight to upgrading a ship’s system to making a scientific discovery to convincing a hostile alien to make peace. I think the game’s system does a very neat job of converting Star Trek‘s values and style of storytelling into game mechanics. Just in general, it seems like a pretty versatile system.

For those who are curious about such things, you can read more on the website link in the first paragraph, but the game is based on a 2d20 system, which means that it uses two 20-sided (icosahedral) dice, a staple of tabletop RPGs. It also uses a variable number of 6-sided dice (the more the better) as “Challenge Dice” for determining success in Tasks, Challenges, and Conflicts; Modiphius sells specialized dice with Starfleet delta emblems on them, but you can substitute regular 6-sided dice. I actually have a set of gaming dice including 2 d20s and a bunch of 6-sided dice, among others — it’s actually my sister’s old gaming dice pouch from high school, which she left behind when she went to college and I eventually claimed for myself. (I don’t remember whether I had her permission or not, so I might have technically swiped them, but then, my sister got most of her 6-sided dice by swiping them from the family’s board games, so it evens out.) I used them for the Dragon Trek game, but I haven’t used them since. (I even made a dice roller out of a paper towel roll, but these days it’s a pencil holder on my desk.) I thought it might be necessary to use those dice in the course of creating campaigns for the game, but as it’s turned out, I haven’t needed to. Creating a game is more a matter of following the Core Rulebook to determine what the mechanics and success parameters are for a given Task, so I just need to say what you need to roll to succeed; I don’t need to roll any dice myself. I suppose I could use the dice if I wanted to create a character by random means, but since I’m creating characters to fill specific story functions, it’s better to customize their attributes.

Even with all the help from the Rulebook, it’s been a challenge for me to adjust to a new style of writing. I’m used to coming at a story from the perspective of its main characters, to build plots that are driven by characters’ distinct personalities and objectives and values. Now, though, I have to figure out ways to tell stories in which I don’t even know who the main characters are — stories that can be adapted to any main characters and still work regardless of their personalities and choices. That’s not easy to do. One way is to focus on plot and the problems the characters have to solve, while creating room within the plot for individual character development, or alternative paths the plot can take depending on what the characters choose to do or whether they succeed or fail at a task. Another way is to focus on the personalities of the “guest stars,” the non-player characters I create, and how their values and agendas drive events and compel the Player Characters to respond. That’s kind of the way the original Star Trek and most 1960s-70s television approached things — keeping the lead characters constant from week to week and having most of the character development and growth be driven by the featured guest stars. But that’s less satisfying for me. What I’ve tried to do is to design situations that will challenge the PCs to make difficult moral choices, confront their personal issues, or try to win someone over with arguments based on their own core values, then leave them a lot of room to role-play and debate and work through it all, with their success or failure affecting what happens next in the story. It’s been quite a challenge, figuring out ways to do character-driven storytelling in the absence of specific characters. I hope I’ve managed to pull it off.

However, I have done one campaign so far that’s much more of a big action-adventure epic. I actually tried to do that one first, but it was too complex in its game mechanics, so I got stuck. I ended up writing a couple of others first, getting a handle on how the mechanics worked, and then tackled the big one. That one hasn’t gotten final approval yet, but hopefully it will soon. It should be a pretty fun one.

I’m not yet sure when my first campaigns will go on sale, but I’m told it should be within the next couple of months. I’ll let you know when they become available.

BUCK ROGERS Bonus Review: The 1939 serial (spoilers)

I felt I should wrap up my Buck Rogers survey by watching the original 1939 Buster Crabbe serial, which I got on DVD through interlibrary loan. The serial can be found online, but with the picture stretched out to fit a modern aspect ratio – I’ll never understand how anyone can tolerate watching something that distorted.

The Universal serial was written by Norman S. Hall, Ray Trampe, and Dick Calkins, and directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind. It opens with Lieutenant Buck Rogers (Crabbe, billed as “Larry (Buster) Crabbe”) and his teen sidekick Buddy Wade (loosely based on the comic strip’s Buddy Deering and played by Jackie Moran, who had played Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the previous year) on a polar expedition in a dirigible that crashes in a blizzard. As a last-ditch measure, the scientist in charge of the expedition orders them over radio to open a canister of his new invention, Nirvano gas, which should induce suspended animation until they can be rescued. But through misfortune, Buck passes out from the gas before he can radio his location, and the dirigible is buried in an avalanche. A montage shows time passing as the years advance onscreen from 1938 to 2450 – not unlike the opening titles of the Gil Gerard series, which was no doubt paying homage.

Buck and Buddy are finally unearthed by a pair of future men who take them to Scientist General Huer, aka Professor Huer, aka Doctor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), who immediately confirms Buck’s story with a history book he just happens to have sitting on his desk, and explains to Buck that, through the “stupidity” of 20th-century men in failing to wipe out crime, the world has now been taken over by “super-racketeers” led by Killer Kane (Anthony Warde). This is highly preferable to the race-war premise of the original Anthony Rogers novellas and the early comic strips, and reflects the era’s preoccupation with organized crime as a leading societal threat (as seen in other serials and radio programs like Gangbusters, The Green Hornet, and Superman). It’s also something of an inversion from the novellas, in which the “gangs” were the good guys.

Kane has been capturing Huer’s men in an attempt to learn the location of the Hidden City, the last bastion of resistance against racketeer rule – probably an inspiration for the Inner City of the 1979 pilot. Huer feels the only hope is to turn to other planets such as Saturn for help, but Kane’s air blockade prevents it. For some reason, nobody in the 25th century has ever considered using decoys to distract Kane’s ships, and for some reason, as soon as Buck suggests it he’s immediately accepted as qualified and entrusted with the mission, even though he’s been awake in the 25th century for mere hours. “Born yesterday” would be an overstatement. But Buck is instantly able to function in the future, even to pilot spaceships with no training whatsoever, and he, Buddy, and Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moore, the only woman in the serial) set out for Saturn, but they’re intercepted by Kane’s men and both groups are captured by the Saturnians, who are fooled by Kane’s man Captain Laska (Henry Brandon) into believing that Buck’s group are anarchist revolutionaries against the benevolent Kane. Buck’s trio manages to escape back to Earth, and the Saturnian council sends an emissary, Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn, younger brother of Kung Fu’s Philip Ahn), to confirm Kane’s legitimacy before signing the treaty. Though Tallen is called a prince, he introduces himself as just a soldier and is subordinate to the council.

Back on Earth, even though Buck’s one and only mission so far was a complete failure, he somehow manages to get promoted to colonel in time to volunteer to infiltrate Kane’s palace disguised as a guard, along with Buddy. Though he proposed it as a spy mission, he immediately reveals himself to stop Tallen from signing the treaty, then shows Tallen how Kane has brainwashed his captives into robotlike slaves (by putting big metal hats on them that look like the back half of a downward-pointing rocket), whereupon Tallen switches sides and escapes with Buck. Tallen signs the treaty with the Hidden City instead, but the Saturnians don’t have interplanetary radio capability, so Buck and Wilma take Tallen back to Saturn in a rocket, which is able to get past Kane’s blockade courtesy of an invisibility ray that Huer has conveniently just invented. But Captain Laska beats them to Saturn, captures Tallen, and uses a “filament” from one of Kane’s robot helmets to brainwash the “prince” into denouncing Buck and Wilma as enemies. Somehow, the Saturnian “Council of the Wise” lacks the wisdom to notice Laska obviously prompting the passive Tallen to speak. Buck is forced to abduct the prince and flee, but it soon gets sorted out and the treaty is signed. But Laska is able to organize a revolt of the Saturnians’ primitive servants the Zuggs (who were pretty revolting to begin with, ba-dum­-bum) and rather easily conquers the council.

But Buck only needs one chapter to deal with Laska and his coup, and the treaty with Saturn is finalized. So Buck and Wilma return to Earth with a whole fleet of Saturnian ships behind them – no, sorry, they actually just go back alone and tell Prince Tallen that they’ll call him on the space radio once they have a plan for defeating Kane, something they should’ve probably worked out before they came. Plus, Buck already smashed the space radio when he threw it at some Zuggs in the previous episode. You’d think he’d remember that. But never mind story logic, they have to get back to Earth in time for the next cliffhanger, which leads to them being shot down and captured by Kane’s men. Kane touts Buck’s capture as heralding the imminent end of the war, even though the war’s been going on for generations and Buck’s only been part of it for a few days. (Wilma’s been involved much longer, but Kane doesn’t seem to consider her important.)

Kane uses one of his tailfinned “amnesia helmets” to enslave Buck, his hated archnemesis that he’s meeting for literally the second time. All seems lost, as Huer is convinced Buck and Wilma died in the crash. Buddy convinces Huer to use his “Past-O-Scope” (patent pending) to watch a clip from chapter 2 to prove that Kane would want to take them alive. (Yes, even though these movie serials were typically only 12 chapters long, they still tended to do clip-show installments in later episodes to save money. Since the action was pretty repetitive from week to week anyway, it didn’t make that much difference.) When that doesn’t work, Buddy convinces a captain to air-drop him into Kane’s city so he can save Buck. Wilma frees herself and helps Buddy free Buck, which is the only time in the serial she’s really gotten much to do. They steal one of Kane’s ships to go back to the Hidden City, but fail to check it for stowaways, allowing one of Kane’s men to radio the city’s location to Kane so that it’s vulnerable to attack. Nice one, Buck.

This requires calling Saturn for help at once, but they finally figure out that the space radio’s dead, so Buck has to fly there yet again (they built those sets and they’re darn well gonna use them). He and a stowaway Buddy find that Laska’s escaped and taken Prince Tallen hostage offscreen to force the council to submit to Kane’s blackmail. Buck uses a speech about the evil of kidnappers, plus yet another flashback clip, to convince them to stick with their treaty, then helps them free Tallen and stop Laska. Then it’s back to Earth for the big climax, with the Saturnian fleet remaining wholly offscreen while Buck and Buddy take it upon themselves to go to Kane’s stronghold, free the robot slaves, and capture Kane. Back home, Buck and Buddy are promoted (having actually earned it this time) and Buck thanks Tallen for all the unspecified and unseen help without which they supposedly couldn’t have won, and then Buddy attempts a little matchmaking with Buck and Wilma before the final, chaste fadeout.

As ‘30s sci-fi serials go, I guess Buck Rogers is okay, but it doesn’t really make much use of its premise. It borrows some things from the comics, like the aviator caps nearly everyone wears, and the “degravity belts” that let their wearers waft almost weightlessly to the ground (or jump very high, at least in the novellas), though the ones here only function like parachutes to slow a descent. Otherwise it’s mostly Flash Gordon redux. Once Buck arrives in the future, he almost instantly adapts to its technology and culture and shows knowledge of things he never had an opportunity to learn. His 20th-century origin is almost never a plot point, except at the end when he addresses the Saturnians about Earth’s long history of battling kidnappers and felons. And he nearly instantly ends up as the most important person in the war, despite doing very little to earn that position. The ’79 series had a similar problem with Buck swiftly becoming Dr. Huer’s most important operative, but at least it made an effort to justify why Buck’s anachronistic existence made him a uniquely valuable asset, and routinely stressed his differences from the 25th-century humans around him (less so in season 2, but by then he’d had more time to get acclimated). By contrast, the serial writes Buck as a fully assimilated member of 25th-century society from the final minutes of Chapter 1 onward, which makes me wonder why they even bothered with the origin story rather than starting with Buck already established in the future. After all, the comic strip was a decade old when this serial came out, so the young target audience of the serial and the strips would have seen Buck as a well-established hero of the future anyway.

Buster Crabbe is fairly good as Buck, and Montague Shaw’s Huer reminds me somewhat of Tim O’Connor’s version of the character, which is a positive. Otherwise, the actors don’t make much of an impression. Anthony Warde (a perennial henchman in his one and only lead-villain role) doesn’t make a particularly effective nemesis as Kane, and it’s never really clear what makes his forces “super-racketeers” rather than just a standard evil dictatorship. Also, he’s not much of a “Killer,” since he prefers to enslave his enemies with amnesia helmets rather than living up to his epithet.

The retro-future tech has some cool bits, like the teleport booths used to get to and from Huer’s lab, and the radios whose microphones levitate when in use. Although some bits are overthought, like the sliding doors where you have to turn a big wheel on the wall to open the door, then turn another one to close it again once you’ve gone through. The music, supervised by Charles Previn, is the same stock library used in the Flash Gordon serials, adapted mainly from Franz Waxman’s score to The Bride of Frankenstein. The cliffhangers mostly play it fairly straight with the audience, but there’s one case where they cut out the part where the heroes bailed out of the ship before it blew up, and a couple of others where a seemingly massive and fatal explosion of a vehicle turned out to be fairly minor after all, which is kind of a cheat. Although the biggest cheat is when the end of Chapter 9 shows Buddy fleeing from Kane’s forces and being shot down, and then Chapter 10 erases that outright and has him jump to safety before they can even target him.

The serial gets points for casting Korean-American actor Philson Ahn in a heroic, non-stereotyped supporting role for which his ethnicity is a complete non-issue, in stark contrast to the original novellas’ horrific racism. On the other hand, much like season 2 of the TV series, it loses points for marginalizing Wilma Deering and having no other female presence.

A closing request: If you’ve enjoyed this review series and would like to see more in the future, please consider making a donation to my PayPal account using this link or the “Donate” button on the upper right of this page. Every little bit helps. Thank you.

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY Second Season Overview (spoilers)

February 6, 2018 6 comments

I came into my rewatch of Buck Rogers season 2 hoping it would be an improvement on the harmlessly banal and insubstantial season 1, though I knew it wouldn’t do nearly as well in its treatment of female characters. At first, with “Time of the Hawk,” it looked as though the season would surpass my wildest hopes. Instead, it mostly turned out to be even worse than I remembered it, a dumb show that took itself far too seriously and thus warranted scorn rather than amusement. It lacked some of the first season’s few virtues, most of all its casual, matter-of-fact feminism. Season 2’s treatment of women (“The Dorian Secret” aside) ranged from neglect and near-total exclusion to outright misogyny, and it handled Wilma Deering quite poorly.

Most of all, season 2 suffered from wasted potential. It started out attempting to tell smart science fiction drama driven by character and ideas (even if the SF ideas were rather fanciful), but it quickly abandoned that in favor of gimmick-based action stories as devoid of substance as season 1 but without the humor and inoffensive charm. It introduced a terrific character in Hawk, marvelously played by Thom Christopher, and badly underused and marginalized him much of the time. That’s perhaps my greatest regret – Hawk could’ve been one of the great SFTV characters if he’d been given more to do. There’s also the fact that it set up a premise and never did anything with it. The Searcher was meant to be probing the galaxy for ancient lost colonies of humanity, but the only time it ever found anything like one was on a routine refueling stop and nobody seemed to care. The only times we saw the crew exploring were in “The Guardian,” “The Satyr,” and “The Hand of the Goral,” and none of those really involved the lost-colonies mission statement. Otherwise, most episodes involved either military/diplomatic missions or rescue operations.

And even though the show spent most of its time out in space, it gave a less cohesive sense of the universe it occupied than season 1 did. It couldn’t seem to decide whether there was a Galactic Council, an Alliance, or a Federation, and it had no recurring aliens or antagonists. It was inconsistent on whether the Searcher used “plasma drive,” stargates, or warp drive. It couldn’t even clearly settle on what its lead characters’ shipboard responsibilities were, and the few recurring background crew members (played by Paul Carr, Dennis Haysbert, and Alex Hyde-White in four episodes each) were interchangeable and seemed to change rank and responsibilities from one episode to the next. It seems the characters in the scripts were written with no continuity between them and the actors were just plugged into whatever role needed to be cast.

The lack of new worldbuilding was compounded by a lack of consistency with the old worldbuilding. In a lot of ways, the second season’s universe didn’t quite mesh with the first season. The human culture of the 25th century was no longer as sterile and computerized, no longer as unfamiliar with Buck’s 20th-century ideas and vernacular. The concept that Earth was governed by AIs and that computers and robots created each other was long forgotten. The date of the nuclear holocaust was moved back by a couple of decades, to mere months after Buck left Earth. Granted, these changes were probably made intentionally and for a purpose. I can imagine that John Mantley and the other season 2 producers wanted to humanize the 25th-century characters more, to make them more accessible to the audience rather than distancing them by having them constantly confused by 20th-century culture. Putting humans back in control of AIs rather than the other way around may have also been intended to make the 25th century seem less forbidding. And the retcon of the Holocaust date in “Testimony of a Traitor” was necessary to make the story happen at all. Since the Holocaust is a key part of Buck’s backstory, it’s understandable why the writers would want to tie him to it more directly. Still, the deliberate discontinuities with season 1 would’ve been easier to swallow if season 2’s worldbuilding had been a worthwhile replacement. Season 1’s world may have had its dystopian elements, but it was a recovering dystopia that was starting to become a better place and had its appealing aspects. Season 2’s abandonment of its distinctive elements, without anything substantial to take their place, just made its universe feel more ill-defined.

So what went wrong this time? How did the season start and end so well but turn out so awful in the middle? The articles available on don’t seem to include any season 2 post-mortems, so I can’t be sure. But I suspect it was the same factors that hobbled season 1 – network suits pushing for simple, lowbrow plots because they lacked faith in the intelligence of the science fiction audience, and Gil Gerard rewriting the scripts to make himself more dominant at others’ expense. In this case, though, there’s the added problem that the new producers were a lot more old-fashioned in their gender values – no, let’s not mince words – a lot more misogynistic than the season 1 producers. Even if the season had managed to maintain the quality of “Time of the Hawk,” that problem would’ve remained.

So here are statistics again:

Best episodes: “Time of the Hawk” and “The Dorian Secret” by a very large margin. Both of them are genuinely good SFTV episodes, far superior to anything else in the entire series. Runners-up: “The Hand of the Goral” and “Testimony of a Traitor” are watchable but flawed, and “Journey to Oasis” and “The Guardians” have impressive moments but don’t work overall. Basically, only the first three and last three episodes are at all worthwhile. The quality of the season follows a pretty symmetrical – and very steep – inverted bell curve.

Worst episodes: “The Satyr” by a significant margin. Also “Shgoratchx!” for its misogyny, though otherwise it wouldn’t be that bad. Probably “Mark of the Saurian” in third-last place.

Best guest stars: Both Mark Lenard as Ambassador Duvoe and Len Birman as Admiral Zite were excellent in “Journey to Oasis.” Ramon Bieri gave a strong showing as Commissioner Bergstrom in “Testimony of a Traitor,” and Stuart Nisbet was an effective bully as Rand in “The Dorian Secret.”

Worst guest stars: Tommy Madden was terrible as General Xenos in “Shgoratchx!” David S. Cass, Sr. was pretty bad as the title role in “The Satyr,” though I blame that more on the writing and character concept. I’m tempted to list Felix Silla and Bob Elyea (?) as Odee-X in “Journey to Oasis,” but Silla doesn’t quite count as a guest star.

Best science fiction concept: I’d have to say the Dorians in “The Dorian Secret,” although only as a “soft” sci-fi idea, a bit of cultural worldbuilding that generates some interesting story points and a final twist reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Otherwise, the closest thing to a decent science-fictional idea is one they cribbed from Isaac Asimov, the use of the Three Laws of Robotics in “Shgoratchx!”

Worst SF concept: Hard to choose. Ancient bird people, mystic healers who can’t heal, removable heads, genetic-experiment space leprechauns, Guardians of cosmic forces, metal-transmuting backward-aging aliens, larval mummy life cycles, satyr viruses, and virtually everything in “Shgoratchx!” Certainly backward-aging aliens are one of my biggest pet peeves, a perennially stupid and nonsensical idea. But I think I’ll give the nod to the satyr virus, both for implausibility and general unpleasantness. Not only is it absurd that an alien virus would happen to turn adult human males into exact duplicates for mythical satyrs, but it also somehow provides them with high-tech energy whips.

Most inspiring moment: Buck’s amazing speech in Hawk’s defense at the climax of “Time of the Hawk.” Easily the best moment in the entire run of the series, if not in Gil Gerard’s entire career.

Most embarrassing moment: The Zeerdonians’ rapey “off-think” assault on Wilma’s clothes in “Shgoratchx!” Once again, the very worst moment of the season is one that diminishes and degrades Wilma.

So that’s my last word on the Gil Gerard Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but I have one more post to go. Next time, a bonus review of the 1939 Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers serial!

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Testimony of a Traitor”/”The Dorian Secret” (spoilers)

February 4, 2018 3 comments

“Testimony of a Traitor” is a formula-breaking Very Special Episode by Stephen McPherson. The Searcher is called back to Earth by War Crimes Commissioner Bergstrom (Ramon Bieri), who orders Buck arrested for treason, offering evidence of a recently unearthed videotape (in Beta format!) showing a January 1987 meeting in which traitors within the US military recruit space hero Buck to obtain launch codes from the President so that they can launch a pre-emptive first strike. In the video, Buck is a willing party to their conspiracy, and the Ranger 3 flight is his reward for doing their bidding. The video is hosted by Buck’s never-before-mentioned best friend Peterson (John O’Connell), recording hours after the onset of the nuclear Holocaust on November 22, 1987, six months after Buck was lost in space. This conflicts with the timeline established in “Cosmic Whiz Kid” last season, which dated the Holocaust around 2008-9.

Buck has no memory of any of these events, but his memories of 1987 are somewhat scrambled due to his 500-year freezer burn (even though they never seemed to be before now), so he can’t be sure he isn’t guilty, and the worst part is that his best friend died believing him a traitor. Dr. Goodfellow proposes using the same optical engrammatic imager (or whatever) technology that was used in “The Crystals” to retrieve Laura’s memories, supposedly a foolproof technology for recovering suppressed memory. Oddly, though, instead of performing the procedure in full before they present the case for the defense, they wait to do it until the trial reconvenes, not even knowing whether the evidence will help or hurt their case. Even more oddly, the prosecutor, Bergstrom, conducts the questioning for what’s supposed to be the defense case. As it happens, Buck’s memories seem to confirm his guilt, as he’s shown breaking into a military base to take spy photos of the launch codes. It’s all over but the sentencing.

However, Buck gets vivid memory flashes of Mount Rushmore, a place he doesn’t remember ever visiting – and, conveniently, one of the only surviving pre-Holocaust landmarks. Hawk, convinced that these memories are key to unlocking the truth, helps Buck and Wilma escape to Mt. Rushmore, where a helpful tour guide shows them the presidential bunker installed there in 1986 as a defense against the bombs. It triggers Buck’s memories enough that, when he’s taken back to the Searcher, he’s able to plead for one more OEI session to recover memories from before the January meeting – memories showing that US President (Walter Brooke) personally recruited Buck to infiltrate the conspiracy and identify all its members, having him hypnotically programmed to believe he was a genuine conspirator, then wiping his memory of the whole thing once the conspiracy had been exposed. Peterson hadn’t realized that the videotape of the conspirators’ meeting was recorded by Air Force Intelligence as part of the sting operation to expose the traitors. Buck is innocent, and Bergstrom apologizes for his overzealous prosecution.

This one starts out fairly interesting, but it kind of fizzles out, and it sounds kind of silly now that I re-read my summary. The contrivance of having Buck try to figure out the truth during the trial proceedings is clumsy, and the coincidence of Buck being a key figure in events prior to the Holocaust is implausible, even if it turns out that the plot he exposed was not the actual trigger of the war. Although I suppose that Buck’s participation in intelligence work back in the 20th century fits somewhat with his recruitment by Dr. Huer to do intelligence work on Earth’s behalf after his revival. Otherwise, though, the episode fits poorly with first-season continuity. On top of issues previously mentioned, the return to Earth makes one wonder why Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis don’t show up for the treason trial of one of their best agents and best friends. I also feel there’s a missed opportunity – I would’ve liked to see Hawk serve as Buck’s defense counsel, to make an eloquent speech in his defense to repay Buck for his eloquent speech in Hawk’s defense in “Time of the Hawk.”

“The Dorian Secret”: Stephen McPherson returns to write the final episode of the series, with Jack Arnold returning to direct. Since the show was cancelled midseason, it’s merely a routine episode with nothing finale-ish about it. Although, in a lot of ways, it’s one of the least routine episodes of the entire series.

While Buck and Hawk are at a space station evacuating some disaster refugees to the Searcher for resettlement, a masked woman, Asteria (Devon Ericson), is chased through the station by a group of similarly masked soldiers. She loses her mask in the struggle and convinces Buck to let her join the refugees. But once safe aboard the Searcher, she refuses to explain to Buck why she was being chased, and he respects her privacy. He recognizes the pursuers as Dorians, mutants from Cygnius [sic] who have a strict tradition of wearing masks in public and never revealing their faces to one another.

Asteria and the refugees are placed in an airliner-like passenger cabin for the trip, and we’re introduced to the various personalities in the group much like in an airplane disaster movie, while Wilma plays flight attendant (again, keep in mind that she used to be the head of the entire Earth military). There’s even a pregnant woman and her husband in the group. Instead of a disaster, though, the Searcher is caught in a tractor field by a Dorian vessel, whose commander Koldar (Walker Edmiston, a voice artist with numerous Star Trek and Mission: Impossible voiceover roles to his name) insists that Asteria be turned over for the murder of his son. To extort cooperation, he uses a beam that alternately heats and chills the Searcher’s interior to a dangerous degree. Buck and Asimov have no desire to bow to this piracy and terrorism, but the passengers are another matter. A hothead named Rand (Stuart Nisbet), who’s basically Juror #3 from 12 Angry Men, tries to rally the passengers into figuring out which woman among them is the Dorian and turning her over for execution. Other passengers stand up to him, notably the stalwart Saurus (Denny Miller), but as the temperature keeps switching from frigid to sweltering, others begin to be swayed by Rand’s bullying bluster.

Hawk manages to get Asteria away from the group long enough for her to tell her story to Buck: She went to the mountains for a rendezvous with Koldar’s son, only to find him wounded from a fall and teetering on the brink of a ledge, which she failed to save him from falling over. Buck convinces Koldar to let him come aboard to view the Dorians’ evidence against her, which he’s shown by Koldar’s younger son Demeter (William Kirby Cullen). It’s footage from an aerial patrol craft, showing what’s either Asteria pushing Koldar’s son off the cliff or trying and failing to catch him. Demeter’s encouraged response when Buck points out the alternative interpretation makes Buck suspect he knows Asteria’s innocent. But Demeter is too intimidated by his father to stand up to him.

On the Searcher, the passengers begin to panic, and magician Chronos (Eldon Quick) has the idea to use the Dorians’ reflexive aversion to mirrors to out Asteria. Saurus tries and fails to stop them from shoving Asteria through the airlock into the Dorian ship (by a contrived coincidence, that airlock is right in their cabin), and Hawk and Wilma arrive just too late. When Buck is brought to Koldar’s bridge to make his case, he finds Asteria already in custody and about to be sentenced. Buck gambles and makes a big speech convincing Koldar to execute her right there and then, hoping to goad Demeter into speaking out. The passengers on Searcher are also watching and are shocked by what they’ve done. At the last moment, Demeter confesses that he’s responsible for his brother’s death; it was an argument between them that caused the injury that later killed him, and Demeter might have realized his injured brother was still alive and gotten him help if not for his people’s custom of wearing masks. He rips off his mask and storms off, and Koldar begins to wonder if it’s time to reassess their custom. Buck asks just what secret the Dorians are hiding under the masks, and the answer is a final, Twilight Zone-y twist that I won’t spoil. Back on the ship, Rand is still convinced he was right, and Buck gives the passengers a speech about learning from the past and not repeating its mistakes on their new planet.

Why keep that final twist secret when I’ve spoiled the endings of earlier episodes? Because I don’t want to encourage anyone to watch those episodes, but this one is another matter. This is easily the best episode since “Time of the Hawk,” a tense, dramatic story driven by ethical debate and commentary on human foibles, and giving Gil Gerard and a number of character actors a chance to make big, theatrical speeches. It also features worldbuilding about an alien society based on something less silly than mummies or satyrs or cosmic guardians or removable heads, although the surprise twist of the true nature of the Dorians’ “mutation” raises a ton of questions. It’s even a bit of a callback to the first season’s concepts, specifically the masked mutant Varek in “The Plot to Kill a City.” Also, while Wilma isn’t given that much to do, “The Dorian Secret” is the only episode this season with more than two significant female guest characters, since there need to be multiple women among the refugees to create doubt about which one is the Dorian. In addition to Asteria, there’s the pregnant woman, a stubborn blond woman who talks back to Rand, and a pair of women traveling together and showing affection for each other – perhaps they’re meant to be sisters or friends, but to modern eyes they look a lot like a lesbian couple, which would be a hell of a thing to slip under the radar in 1981.

Perhaps it’s a good thing the series ended with this episode, allowing a mostly very weak season to end on almost as high a note as where it began. On the other hand, the strength of the last two or three episodes might mean the show was starting to find itself again and would’ve continued to improve. For better or worse, we’ll never know.

Next time, my season overview!

BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (S2) Reviews: “Shgoratchx!”/”The Hand of the Goral” (spoilers)

February 2, 2018 1 comment

“Shgoratchx!”: This oddly named comedy episode is by William Keys, whose few TV-writing credits come largely from Gunsmoke and Barnaby Jones, as well as Irwin Allen’s 1978 miniseries The Amazing Captain Nemo, for which he was one of six credited writers. This is one of the season 2 episodes I’ve always remembered most clearly, but not for anything positive. Mainly, I remember it for containing the most offensively sexist scene in the entirety of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. This is the second episode in a row that might require a trigger warning for the way it treats a female character, although this time it’s played as a joke.

A derelict ship is found drifting into the freight lanes, and Crichton wakes up a fatigued Buck to deal with it, taking the opportunity to complain about Buck’s ghastly century characterized by “wars, Women’s Lib, and the Holocaust,” which tells you something about the episode’s gender values. Buck, Hawk, and Crichton board the freighter to find it inhabited by, literally, seven dwarves – comical aliens called Zeerdonians, played by Little Person actors, including six ornately attired generals (Tommy Madden, John Edward Allen, Billy Curtis, Harry Monty, Spencer Russell, and Charles Secor) and their sole subordinate, Private Zedht (Tony Cox), who’s the only one they can give orders to but who never follows them anyway. It’s kind of an amusing idea on the face of it, but it’s disturbingly undermined by the fact that the private is the only black member of the group, so that it comes off as a “lazy black servant” stereotype. On the other hand, Zedht is also portrayed as the only remotely sane or sensible member of the group.

Anyway, it turns out – ridiculously and inexplicably – that the derelict is carrying hundreds of “solar bombs” powerful enough to “radioactivate” the whole quadrant, and in an advanced state of decay, sweating like old dynamite and prone to blow at any moment. So the Searcher has to tow the ship very carefully to a “bomb disposal star,” whatever that is, but the Six Napoleons and the Solitary Slacker keep wandering around pushing buttons and causing trouble, including a surge of acceleration that causes Crichton’s positronic brain to be dented, making Twiki worry about the fate of his “son” (and it’s finally mentioned in passing why Twiki sees Crichton that way). The Zeerdonians also develop an inordinate fascination with Wilma, finding her unlike any female they have back home because — here we go — “she has bumps.” Why they failed to notice any of the other women who are theoretically in the crew before they encountered Wilma on the bridge is unexplained.

When the Zeerdonians short out a power circuit and almost cause the tractor beam to pull the derelict into the Searcher, Buck discovers that the aliens are “naturally grounded” and convinces them (or rather, the private) to help bridge the circuit and fix the problem they caused. Then, on the admiral’s orders, Buck foists the seven little men off on Wilma. She expresses actual fear at this, anxiously pointing out the inordinate interest they’ve taken in her anatomy, but Buck — our hero, ladies and gentlemen — dismisses her concerns without a second thought. This is how men like Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long.

Wilma tries locking the Zeerdonians in the lounge, but they turn out to have another random ability, a telekinetic gift to “off-think” the lock so they can get out and cause more mischief, including playing Asteroids with the literal asteroid belt the ship is passing through for some reason. After Buck and Wilma stop them, Buck leaves Wilma with them again, and she makes the mistake of inquiring about their reproductive methods, which involve their queen laying eggs in groups of seven. Then – oh, I have to apologize for summarizing this, and it made me squirm to watch it. They use their powers to lock Wilma in with them and surround her, declaring they have to “examine” her “for science,” and chant “Off-think” at her until her clothes start to come off.

Remember that Wilma Deering used to be portrayed as the leader of Earth’s entire military. This is what the show has now reduced her to. When I first saw the scene at age 12, I admit, I found the prospect of seeing Erin Gray undressed quite exciting. But when I saw it years later in reruns, with more understanding of rights and consent, I found it disgusting to see what was essentially a sexual assault played for laughs. And I don’t feel any less disgusted now. Though it could’ve been much, much worse. In his interview in Starlog #39, John Mantley boasts about the upcoming story as it was originally scripted: “They get her clothes off and we don’t see what happens to her… Up walks this gnome who is holding a brassiere yelling, ‘What’s this? What’s this?’ And Buck says ‘It looks like a ‘B’ cup to me.'” Good grief!! For once, I’m grateful for network censors, since the aired version has Buck rescue Wilma while she’s still almost fully clothed, then insist that the Zeerdonians fall in line.

It turns out the asteroid damage from the generals’ little stunt has trapped the ship on a collision course with a star, and Crichton’s the only one equipped to fix the damage. Twiki, citing his obligation under the First Law of Robotics to prevent humans from coming to harm, bravely volunteers to have his brain placed inside Crichton’s body to perform the repairs, despite the risk that Crichton’s more advanced and powerful circuits could burn him out. Twiki’s innards look completely different than they did in the previous episode when Buck was repairing him, and his positronic brain looks ridiculously like a human brain spray-painted silver, while Crichton’s brain is a larger, more trapezoidal piece shaped to fit his head, looking like the offspring of a human brain and a styrofoam cooler. Once installed, Twiki speaks robotically in Crichton’s voice (reciting the Three Laws of Robotics and identifying himself as unit TWKE-4, contradicting his designation in “Twiki is Missing” as Ambuquad N22-23-T) and performs the repairs in time to save the ship. Why his personality doesn’t manifest in Crichton’s body is unclear. Once Twiki’s back in his own body, the Zeerdonians use their “on-think” power to reactivate him and then magically fix the dent in Crichton’s brain.

The Zeerdonians then get a grateful sendoff from the crew, along with Hawk, who’s been missing since the early scenes. They say their queen will knight them for their efforts, leading Goodfellow to hope that she also replaces their dog of a ship, because he wouldn’t send a knight out on a dog like that. That one line is funnier than the rest of the episode.

Oh, what a mess. Admittedly, the concept does have its fun moments, and it’s refreshing to see a comedy episode after the season has treated so many ludicrous ideas as ultra-serious drama. The episode came out just a few months before Time Bandits, and I wonder if it was an attempt to capitalize on hype for the upcoming film, although I don’t recall how much hype Time Bandits got. The story is also notable for being first time I ever saw Asimov’s Laws of Robotics and positronic brains referenced in a work of mass-media science fiction, though I already knew them well from Asimov’s prose. (The latter concept would be used later on in Star Trek: The Next Generation for Data and similar androids. I wasn’t at all thrilled when TNG first mentioned positronic brains in “Datalore,” because their inclusion in “Shgoratchx!” seven years earlier had tainted the idea for me. Also, it’s not a concept that really makes any scientific sense; Asimov just coined the term because it sounded vaguely futuristic.)

But the gross sexism of the episode, with Wilma being sexually harassed as a running gag, is simply irredeemable. It’s so unpleasant and distasteful that it overshadows anything positive about the episode.

It certainly doesn’t help that most of the Zeerdonians, especially the lead general Tommy Madden, are quite bad actors, though Tony Cox isn’t bad as the private. Also, in several scenes, they aren’t all effectively miked, so some of their dialogue is hard to hear. It’s not just a function of their height, because there’s one scene where Wilma is inadequately miked as well. I’d expect more from director Vincent McEveety, who was one of Star Trek’s more notable directors. (The title, by the way, is a Zeerdonian interjection that’s never translated or consistently pronounced.)

This is the final episode to feature Alex Hyde-White, and his largest dialogue role. Though he’s credited as Ensign Moore, he’s addressed in dialogue as Lt. Martin, his character name from “The Crystals.” Presumably he was cast in the role after the script was written, and the name was changed in production.

“The Hand of the Goral” is the second episode by Francis Moss, writer of “Mark of the Saurian.” Fortunately, it’s a significant improvement on Moss’s debut.

Buck, Hawk, and Wilma go down to survey the ruins of Vor Deeth, “the Planet of Death,” which was once inhabited by a people called the Goral (rhymes with coral). They find a crash survivor named Reardon (Peter Kastner), whom Wilma takes up to the Searcher for medical treatment. Buck and Hawk explore the ruins and see each other disappear briefly, concerning them enough to send them back to the ship. Once they reunite with Wilma, they find that everyone else is acting badly out of character. Admiral Asimov has become a paranoid Captain Bligh, locking crewmen up for imagined mutinies. Dennis Haysbert’s recurring character, here finally named as Lt. Parsons, is his grinningly cruel enforcer. Crichton is polite and submissive, and Twiki is a bitter grouch who resents being ordered around by humans (which actually wouldn’t have been so out of character for his sarcastic first-season version). Dr. Goodfellow seems his normal eccentric-grandfather self at first, but gets outraged when his workmanship on Crichton is challenged.

Our three leads suspect some force from the planet is affecting the crew and try to get off the ship, but Asimov catches them and has them locked in Buck’s quarters – letting him recognize that the viewport’s in the wrong place, and so is the ship’s orbit. He realizes the ship and all its crew are duplicates of the real thing. (So if the ship was in the wrong orbit, how did Buck and Hawk get there?) They make their escape, and when they’re confronted by Parsons, Buck assails him and demands answers, whereupon he burns up into a pile of ash, proving the duplicate theory. Wilma is terrified by this and begs Buck to hold her, which in season 1 would’ve been a clear sign that she was an impostor too, but at this point it’s hard to tell. Later, though, when the trio are attacked by the impostor crew and both Hawk and Wilma are pinned by debris, Wilma is helpless with terror while Hawk selflessly begs Buck to save Wilma first. Buck chooses to help Hawk instead, and Wilma burns up, a fake after all. Buck says he knew because the real Wilma doesn’t scare easily. At least some trace of her old characterization remains. (As it happens, this is very reminiscent of a scene in Philip Nowlan’s second Anthony Rogers novella “The Airlords of Han,” in which a captive Rogers is shown footage of Wilma being tortured and begging him to surrender if he wants to save her, and he recognizes it as fake because he knows Wilma is too strong to beg like that. Coincidence or reference?)

The guys get away and try to get back to the real Searcher, but it’s caught in a “snare beam” from the planet. So they go back to the surface, where they’re faced by the Hand of the Goral (John Fujioka), a programmed construct of mutable matter-energy who reveals the whole thing has been a test for candidates to take over as his new masters. Apparently nobody’s passed the tests in 10,000 years, and Buck and Hawk have one test left. A member of the real Searcher’s crew, he says, has taken the means of its destruction aboard, and they must find “him” before it’s too late. Folks, the Goral were bloody terrible at riddles. First the Hand figured it would somehow be hard for Buck and Hawk to identify the obviously flawed fake ship and crew, and now he makes it ridiculously easy to figure out that the “crash victim” Reardon is the saboteur. B&H return to the real ship, figuring that the saboteur would target the fusion reactor. But Reardon has changed into Lt. Parsons and tells them he’s already searched the reactor room, which works until they happen to run into the real Parsons in the corridor just after. They go back in to search and make the rookie mistake of splitting up to search for a shapeshifter – but fortunately the Goral constructs are still pretty dumb, since the fake Hawk that Buck encounters almost immediately gives himself away. “Hawk” turns into the Hand, who laments that he’s still stuck alone on Vor Deeth – even though they’ve passed the tests, which should mean they get to stay, although they’ve made it clear they don’t want to. Maybe the Goral should’ve considered testing for actual willingness to stay?

Okay, so there are logic holes in the Goral’s actions, and their challenges aren’t remotely as difficult as advertised. But this is actually a fairly effective episode. It’s finally, finally a good focus on the Hawk-Buck-Wilma triad, even if Wilma’s a fake for most of it – though it treats the real Wilma better in her absence than recent episodes have treated her in her presence. It’s a pretty decent adventure and a better paranoid/impostor thriller than Moss’s previous episode, with the characters getting to use their wits, resourcefulness, and understanding of each other to solve the problems. I wouldn’t call it objectively good, but it’s not bad and there’s nothing actively offensive about it. At this point, mediocrity is a refreshing improvement.

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