Series Finale Week: Enterprise

“This episode is a gift to the fans” is the line creators always use when hyping up a series’ finale. Sometimes, it’s true. Recently, Fringe ended with a thrilling, poignant episode, full of elegant (and sometimes disgusting) ties to past installments. But what do you do if you’re trying to give a gift to fans who, until recently, hated your show?

If you’re the producers of Star Trek: Enterprise, you abandon everything that made people like your show, and make one of the worst series finales ever.

57083.006.tifStar Trek: Enterprise is not the worst series in the franchise but it is the dullest. Enterprise was nominally a prequel to the original 60s Star Trek, set in a rough time defined by conflict with Klingons and Romulans. In practice, however, Enterprise was Next Gen lite. The Klingons and Romulans were bit players in the convoluted time travel antics of the Suliban and their shadowy benefactor from the future – creatively dubbed “Future Guy”. Species first introduced in Next Gen made appearances – but to make sure continuity wasn’t disrupted, villains such as the Borg or Ferengi would refrain from mentioning their name. All the technology from the more recent series was there, but with a different name and a silver coat of paint. The series was still a procedural about weekly encounters with generic aliens you’d never see again, despite the heavy serialization of the then-recent (and best) Star Trek, Deep Space Nine. Enterprise was Next Gen with worse writing and a painfully generic cast headed by Scott Bakula as the bland Captain Archer, whose arguments with Vulcan second-in-command T’Pol were meant to call to mind the relationship between McCoy and Spock, and instead seemed more like childish tantrums.

With the third season, Enterprise embraced serialization, giving a single horrible story room to grow over twenty episodes. The third season’s arc was a metaphor for the War on Terror, abandoning the Suliban in favor of the Xindi, an alliance of species who attack Earth. The Enterprise goes after the Xindi like – metaphor alert! – the US hunted Bin Laden. Of course, the Xindi spent their time in evil councils straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The producers of Enterprise looked at al-Qaeda and thought of giant bugs hatching evil plots to destroy Earth. Compare this plotline to how Enterprise’s contemporary Battlestar Galactica handled the same theme, and you have a good sense of why no one cared about Enterprise circa 2003.

But then Enterprise turned itself around in its unique fourth season – a season that not coincidentally was in the hands of a new showrunner, Manny Coto. While the cast remained dull, the storytelling gained new energy out of an unusual format – the season consisted near-exclusively of two or three-part stories. These stories also began to set up long-term story arcs and address key elements of the show’s original premise. The Romulans returned, the Suliban and Xindi vanished, and the series was finally going somewhere…

Then came cancellation. The show’s finale was written not by Coto, but by the show’s creators, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.

The last episode of Enterprise was sold on the “gift to the fans” line, and when it begins it seems like it could deliver. It’s several years after the penultimate episode, and the Enterprise is returning to Earth for decommissioning. The Federation’s founding is imminent. Long time viewers are about to see the payoff that would make sticking with the show worth it. The crew discuss what will happen when they return home, and Bakula’s Captain Archer worries about a speech he’s writing for the occasion…and then we pan over to see Jonathan Frakes. He pauses the hologram and walks away.

entrikerEnterprise’s finale is not told from the perspective of the show’s cast. Instead, it follows characters from another show entirely: the Next Generation’s Riker and Troi, who witness the original Enterprise’s final days on the holodeck. This would be akin to Frasier’s final episode revolving around Cliff Clavin. The motivation is clear: remind viewers of better days for the franchise. Bizarrely, Enterprise’s finale is set during a specific episode of the Next Generation – “The Pegasus”, a forgettable entry from that show’s weak final season. Riker is revisiting the adventures of Archer to gain perspective. There are two long scenes discussing the events of an episode of another show, scenes with no relevance to Enterprise. According to “These Are the Voyages”, the entire series exists to spur a character to make a decision we saw the outcome of in 1994.

entshran

The Enterprise is heading home when it is hailed by Shran, a recurring character played by Jeffrey Combs. Shran was an alien military officer. Here, he’s inexplicably faked his own death. To support his family, he supplanted the notoriously paltry pay of a general by taking up petty crime – and now criminals have kidnapped his daughter. So the Enterprise diverts course to save her, a mission that takes the life of one of the cast, Southern engineer Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer).

What, think that’s a spoiler? It’s not. Riker tells you he’s going to die right after the opening credits. It could have lended the episode a tragic air of inevitability. But the death is so pathetically staged, and so little happens, the early spoiler just renders the show more dramatically inert. When you know someone is going to die, you start to have expectations. Trip’s death comes when the gangsters board the Enterprise and ask him and the Captain where Shran is.

Let’s tell the story in images (primarily because I couldn’t find a video):

Archer and Trip emerge from someone's quarters and are held at gunpoint by the gangsters who were after Shran - who gained access to the ship, somehow...

Archer and Trip emerge from their quarters and are held at gunpoint by the gangsters seeking Shran – they’ve gained access to the ship, somehow, and security is nowhere to be found.

Archer and Trip scream at each other until Trip declares he can go contact Shran and the aliens knock out Archer...

Archer and Trip scream at each other until Trip declares he can go contact Shran and the aliens knock out Archer, then are easily tricked out of killing him…

At gunpoint, Trip offers to bypass security and contact Shran. He wanders through inexplicably empty corridors...

Trip offers to bypass security and contact Shran. He wanders through inexplicably empty corridors and is allowed to meddle with the ship’s equipment freely for…some reason.

...and blows himself up to kill criminals who couldn't even kill his captain when he was unconscious.

Trip takes the chance to blow himself up in order to kill these criminal masterminds.

Everything about this sequence is rushed (it takes less than a minute) and inexplicable. Of course, killing off a main character attracts buzz to your finale, even if the character’s death doesn’t make sense or serve any narrative purpose.

There is one final misstep in “These Are The Voyages”:

Archer’s speech, which we’ve been hearing about all episode? It goes unseen. As it begins, Riker and Troi end the program. Instead of ending the series on a stirring note with the main character’s triumphant speech…we end with Riker saying he’ll go speak to Picard. Just like in the episode from 1994.

As he leaves the holodeck, we get another ending, one that better fits the line of pleasing fans. We see the Enterprise of Next Gen flying through space; Patrick Stewart narrates ‘Space, the final frontier…”. Cut to Kirk’s Enterprise: Shatner’s recitation of “Explore strange new worlds…”. And then…the eponymous Enterprise gliding off into a nebula, with Bakula concluding the famous words: “…to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Fade to black.

Enterprise’s finale was not the gift to the fans the producers wanted; critics despised it, and fans who remained loyal through the show’s troubled run were understandably angry over the finale tossing aside the show’s cast in favor of a pair of guest stars from another show. With this episode, the history of Star Trek on television ended; it would lay dormant until JJ Abrams’ reboot, which kills off Archer’s dog in a throwaway line.

I watched “These are the Voyages” when it first aired on UPN (a moment of silence, please, for the network that brought us Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, and…uh, the final seasons of Buffy?), long after I stopped caring about Enterprise, and I hated it. When I watched it again today, it’s somehow worse. Great series finales can give fans one last outing with their favorite characters, or they can seek to redefine everything that came before. Enterprise’s producers wanted to make fans happy, and throw in some big twists. “These are the Voyages” fails on both fronts: its tribute to past series is distracting and pointless. Its biggest twist is not only awkward, but spoiled early on for no apparent reason. None of the stories set up throughout the fourth season are even mentioned. An episode meant to please everyone, “These are the Voyages” pleases no one.

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  • Tomorrow: Two of the most popular sitcoms of all time conclude with entries that are pleasant, but not much else.
  • Thursday: Let’s preemptively sob over 30 Rock.

Gex 3

Gex 3

Christmas, 1999. My gifts were just what I wanted.

One was a game I had looked forward to for months. I braved my family’s dinner, and chat, and the interminable parades they watched, hoping I could get the TV for myself and play my new gift. Finally, it was my chance. I sat, cross-legged, by the Christmas tree and gripped the controller as the Playstation started up. I basked in the television’s glow as the first level loaded up. Why, it was even Christmas themed! Could this game be a more fitting gift? I was overjoyed to be playing…Gex 3!?

Looking back, I have no idea why I desired a game so…mediocre. 1999’s Gex 3 was the last installment in a moderately popular and rarely loved series. The first Gex was a simple 2D platformer that debuted in 1994 on the 3DO console; Gex became the 3DO’s mascot. The sequel came four years later, long after the 3DO’s unmourned demise. That game took the titular gecko into three dimensions for the first time; it also recycled the same levels over and over and looked extraordinarily cheap, so those were possibly three dimensions too many.

Gex_3_-_Deep_Cover_Gecko
These were games of limited charms. There were many platformers in the late 90s, and far too many were identical: wrestle with an awkward camera as you jump around, collecting hundreds of useless items. The best platformers were clever: Banjo-Kazooie, Rayman, Spyro the Dragon, Jumping Flash, and a select few others all had creative level design that made all the collecting worthwhile. No such luck in the Gex series, where you grab remotes to unlock further levels; gather 100 flies to find an additional remote (a mission stolen from Super Mario 64’s ‘collect 100 coins’ quests); and find coins and paws, whose functions are more obscure. Gex 3 asks nothing more of you than to walk over objects so you can unlock new levels in which you can walk over yet more objects.

Gex 3 still looks relatively nice today, especially compared to its simplistic predecessors, but that wasn’t why I – or anyone else – wanted it. Gex’s true selling point was its humor.

Gex’s humor is firmly based in lazy pop culture references. Gex is voiced by Dana Gould in the United States, and Cat from Red Dwarf in the UK. The jokes are just as bad on either side of the pond. Each level has a television theme – gangsters, superheroes, anime, and so on. In the Christmas level, the game offers up such wisecracks as Gex saying “Herbie, I want to be a dentist!” in a funny voice, or “My name is Jack Gexington, from Halloweentown!” in a different funny voice. Dancing candy canes prompt him to make a comment about sticking tongues to metal poles. Some gags are timely – when Gex jumps on a snowboard at the end of the level, he bemoans that there’s “another snowboarding game”. How many today remember the days when mediocre snowboarding games were everywhere? There is no satirical twist to most of the jokes; Gex asks you to laugh at the mere act of quoting a movie, as if it’s the most hilarious thing in the world to know lines from old Christmas specials.

Gex 3  Deep Cover Gecko europe_Apr4 13_57_03

The level itself is devoid of interesting sight gags, because anything funny is repeated ad nauseam. The first level’s big centerpiece is an evil Santa Claus. He throws a present at you; Gex chucks it back at him. “You’re on the list!” he cries. Repeat twice more. Everything in Gex, and other games of its ilk, is drawn out. Once, Mario would encounter certain boxes containing multiple coins, requiring multiple jumps to get them all; imagine if every box had multiple coins and you have a good approximation of the Gex experience. Every penguin, box and enemy must be hit three or four times to gather every fly; the level’s twisted elves require two or three hits to die. Anything can and will be drawn out by the developers if it means you can trumpet “20 hours of gameplay!” on the back of the box.

Why did nine-year old me make Gex 3 such an important part of his Christmas? I had never played any of the previous games. Gex 3 was the best-selling game in the franchise, yet it was still only a minor success, and critical reaction was decidedly mixed. I could have asked for any number of better games, yet I asked for this one. Perhaps it’s best to leave my puzzling childhood affection for Gex 3 as just that – the affection of a child, delighting in the snowy world of Gex on Christmas Day.

Notes

  • One curiously primitive aspect of Gex 3 – every time you find a remote, you’re kicked out of the level. Sure, Super Mario 64 did this too – but Gex 3 is no Super Mario 64, and it gets grating to run through the same areas.
  • Another odd element, seemingly designed to waste time: Gex 3’s mechanics are mostly copied from Gex 2, yet Gex 3 has a tutorial and Gex 2 doesn’t. And the tutorial is required if you want every remote.
  • A sign of what gaming was like in ’99 – Gex 3 comes with several demos, in a day when discs carrying dozens of demos were common and eminently disposable. Now, few companies even bother with demos. One demo is of a game that’s near-great, Soul Reaver (which runs on the Gex 3 engine); the others are the obscure, voodoo-themed action game Akuji the Heartless and Warzone 2100, an awkward attempt at a console RTS. All three are rather bloody and extremely M-rated; odd matches for a game as juvenile as Gex.

Animal Practice

Justin Kirk and Crystal the Monkey in Animal Practice. The monkey earns $12,000 an episode. Really.

Before Animal Practice aired, it had transformed from a silly show about a monkey veterinarian into something more: a sign of NBC’s transformation. Ever since Friends and Frasier ended in 2004, NBC has been a fount of low-rated but innovative comedy. 30 Rock. Scrubs. My Name is Earl. Parks and Recreation. The Office, which became a minor hit. And Community, the brilliant show NBC sent off to near-certain cancellation without its creator on Fridays. But this season, NBC made an effort to go “broader”, with no less than three sitcom blocks. Animal Practice was emblematic of the change. Where once NBC offered a few million viewers smart pop culture parodies and wit, they were now giving millions more a wacky monkey show and pushing their greatest shows to early graves: 30 Rock is officially in its final season, and neither Parks and Rec nor Community seem likely to last out the year. To add insult to injury, the monkey in Animal Practice is Annie Boob’s from Community. It felt like NBC was poaching from its best show to prop up an inferior newcomer.

So after much backlash, Animal Practice turns out to be a sitcom that’s…alright. Not great, or especially interesting, but a tolerable enough way to spend  a half-hour. Animal Practice stars Justin Kirk as a veterinarian who hates people, but likes his animal patients; a Dr. House who treats canis lupus, if you will. He was with Dorothy (Joanna Garcia-Swisher), who as with all TV exes re-enters his life dramatically. She owns the hospital now and reorganizes it to be, well, more like a hospital. It won’t be a TV romance to challenge Sam and Diane, but isn’t the most annoying one either. Rounding out the cast are Bobby Lee and Tyler Labine as the requisite wacky dweebs. Betsy Sodaro’s Angela is there to say weird things and push George and Dorothy to get together, which is theoretically funny. And of course there’s Crystal the Monkey as Dr. Rizzo, the monkey veterinarian responsible for most of the pilot’s laughs.

The leads work and the pilot is effective in setting up Animal Practice as a likable enough world. Veep’s Matt Walsh guest stars as a man who balks at the cost of his daughter’s dog’s surgery and wants it put down. Dorothy kidnaps the dog to keep it from being killed, and they do eventually perform surgery on it and essentially blackmail him into paying for it by revealing a strip club coaster was found inside the dog. Yes, it’s broad. But is being broad necessarily bad? There’s worse ways to go broad than Animal Practice’s method of easy emotional beats, simple characters and cartoonish comedy. A lot worse; just look at any ad for Guys With Kids. Animal Practice isn’t a show I’ll seek out, but it’ll probably be an enjoyable enough time waster when I do catch it.

Notes

  • Animal Practice has one of the least memorable title sequences in recent memory. Network title sequences have been cut severely (or even removed entirely), but Community, Parks and Rec and The Office all managed to make something memorable in a short time. Animal Practice? Not so much.

Go On

Matthew Perry, surrounded by the grievers he somehow inspires in Go On.

Go On airs on Tuesdays at 7, starting on September 11; the premiere aired after the Olympics and is probably available on NBC.com.

I don’t go into any show (or film, or what have you) expecting awfulness. Maybe sometimes if it’s an interesting failure; but otherwise, why waste time by directing pointless snark at something everyone hates? So I watched Go On with a hopeful attitude; sadly, my hopes were dashed. Whilst not an unqualified failure, Go On’s pilot is too serious to work as broad comedy and too broad to be believably serious.

Go On stars Matthew Perry as a sports radio host whose wife recently died. I saw snark directed at Perry on Twitter, but he was always Friends’ funniest cast member, even if every show he’s starred in since burned out fast. Here, his style of rapid one-liners just doesn’t work; they aren’t funny, but more importantly they undermine the series’ attempts at drama.

Perry’s character, Ryan King, joins a support group made up of stock sadsacks and oddballs. Only Julie White’s character, a woman angry over her partner’s death, stands out as someone unique. You know who really isn’t memorable? The group’s leader, played by Laura Benanti. She is there to, predictably, accomplish nothing and feud with our rebellious hero. We learn she worked with Weight Watchers and so has no credentials to lead the group; neither does Ryan, of course.

Yes, Go On tries to temper the serious, dramedic premise by being generically inspirational. Ryan enters the group and instantly makes everyone better in a way Benanti’s character can’t. Since he’s a sports anchor, he pits everyone’s source of grief against each other in what’s dubbed “March Sadness”. This moment is broad and feels false. What grieving person would not only go along with such a ghastly competition, but find it fun? Like much in Go On’s first episode, the “march sadness” competition is a broad moment that is both unfunny and has no real pathos. Yet it shakes the group out of its stupor, and later Ryan convinces them to don the medieval gear of a LARPer’s group and chase after the Google Streetview van. This is meant to be a life-affirming moment for Ryan and the group, but it’s an artificial grab at emotion. Ryan is spun as a figure who inspires those around him while moving on himself, but in practice his anger is dwelt only briefly and his time in the group consists mainly of dull quips. Go On stacks the deck in favor of admiring Ryan, but fails in execution.

I didn’t hate Go On, and it could become a good show when given time. It doesn’t help that Go On feels like a copy of Community, with Perry as Jeff, Benanti as Britta, and the support group as, well, the study group. Community’s pilot – and early episodes – weren’t promising, but it grew into one of the best shows on TV. Go On could perform the same feat; there are moments in the première that do work, like a montage in the middle of the episode that actually treats each character’s problems as something other than a target for Perry’s jokes. Honestly, I wonder if Go On’s problems are ones of format – a half hour network sitcom has to brush past any emotion in favor of jokes, and maybe it would work better as a hour-long dramedy. I’ll watch the series when it starts airing in earnest, but I fear any hopes that Go On will become a great show will remain just that – unrealized hopes.

Notes

  • Go On joins the ranks of shows that waste John Cho – a storied company including Flashforward and The Single’s Table, a sitcom starring Cho that never even aired. I can’t see Go On emphasizing the workplace elements, so I doubt his role will be too large in episodes to come.
  • Weird of NBC to air a show not after the Olympics, but after one day’s Olympics coverage. Yet they’re also having a preview for Animal Practice and an early première for Grimm.
  • NBC tried to go “broad” with their new sitcoms this season, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But going off ads, I’m questioning if they picked up a single good comedy. It’s possible to make a show that’s broad and good, but not if your schedule’s based around a shockingly well-paid monkey.

Please stop talking about how the Olympics are delayed.

I’m sick of complaints about the Olympic’s tape delay.

I’ve criticized how NBC weighed down the opening ceremony with commentators who proudly displayed their disgusting ignorance and insensitive cuts of touching segments in favor of pointless interviews. There’s also the forced narratives, the excessive commercialization, the objectification of female athletes…all real complaints. But a tape delay? Why shouldn’t NBC leave major events to primetime, where they’ll take in the most ad revenue? How is this something controversial and not a common sense move? This debate will score people easy “new media” points on Twitter, but will never go anywhere.

NBC hates the Olympics, and hates you for watching them.

Or at least it seems that way, speaking as someone who watched both the American and British broadcasts of the opening ceremonies. The ceremonies themselves were lovely, and the British announcers largely stayed out of the way. The Americans? Not only did they talk over action, they did not seem to know the difference between “informative” and “time-wasting”. Introducing the Arctic Monkeys is informative; speaking over their rendition of “Come Together” to note they’re from Sheffield is just a waste. And noting “this is the soundtrack to our lives!” is especially wasteful when your praise is covering up the music.

The Americans also had a need to overexplain every detail, and this outright ruined several segments. The “modern” segment ended with internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee, a twist the British concealed. The Americans? They opened by saying he would appear, and said they didn’t know who he was either. Of course, it’s a journalist’s job to know who someone they’re reporting on is. Does NBC figure it’s charming to be ignorant?  They also broke into that same segment multiple times to explain the love story as if it were something complex, or hard to follow for any reason other than them talking over it constantly.

Fans of ignorance and jingoism need look no further than the embarrassment that is the American commentary on the Parade of Nations. First after Greece was Afghanistan – a nation discussed exclusively in terms of how many American troops were there. If a nation could be reduced to its link to America, it was. Witness the speech justifying China as our Olympic rival – the new Soviet Union – even though Costas says we don’t compete strongly in many of the same categories with the Chinese. What a rivalry!

Throughout, Matt Lauer and Bob Costas were a font of insight. “If there were a gold medal for countries whose name make me smile, it would go to Djibouti!” Yes, let’s reduce countries to lame puns; what promotes national unity more? Finland, meanwhile, was reduced to its progressive parking ticket policy. My favorite piece of Parade of Nations commentary: “When you’re President for life, your term ends when you die.” And now the country of No Shit is entering the arena, lead by flag bearer Sherlock.

NBC cut one whole segment – the tribute to terrorism victims. Yes, who wants moving remembrances of the lost when you can have Ryan Seacrest interview the notoriously media-shy Michael Phelps? I wondered how NBC would handle the tribute to the National Health Service and children’s literature, which sounded silly but turned out to be the best part of the opening ceremonies. Naturally, the NHS was explained in terms of American controversies over socialized healthcare; well they (and many other developed nations) have free health care, but it’s inexplicably controversial here, so let’s move on. Look at that huge Voldemort! Really, what else would you expect from NBC?

Crash Bandicoot in 2012

And here’s a fan’s tech demo of a modern Crash Bandicoot. It looks great, but that’s to be expected when all they needed to do was focus on graphics; after all, any real attempt at a Crash Bandicoot remake would be hit with a quick cease-and-desist order.

Crash Bandicoot is looked back at nostalgically as part of the first generation of 3D platformers – the Playstation’s Super Mario 64, if you will – but what’s interesting is how, besides graphics, the series was distinctly 2D. Movement alternated between side-scrolling areas where you could occasionally move further or closer to the camera and top-down platforming sections that still didn’t have much free movement; often, levels would switch between the two styles. Only the third game – also the best in the series – had open levels, in the form of jet ski and biplane minigames:

This hybrid between 2D gameplay and 3D graphics was pioneered by Bug! and Clockwork Knight on the Saturn, and was furthered on the Playstation with games like Crash, Tomba! and Klonoa. These types of games came along during a time where 2D games were on their way out; Sony discouraged their release, and in the United States they were eventually banned from being released at all on the Saturn.

These “2.5D games” fell out of favor on the Playstation 2, and now it exists mainly in the form of franchise throwbacks. Truly 2D games have made a minor comeback – in the form of an endless stream of “retro” indie games and occasional big releases like the brilliant Rayman Origins. Crash Bandicoot was innovative technically (it was among the best looking games on the Playstation and doesn’t look bad today), but in many ways it was just as old-fashioned as the 2D platformers it helped push to the fringes of gaming.

Here’s your chance to buy Final Fantasy VII again!

So the rumors are true: Final Fantasy VII is coming to the PC, again. Not to Steam, however; Final Fantasy VII will instead be exclusive to Square Enix’s store. Final Fantasy VII, of course, was released for the computer before; that version can’t easily run on modern machines and came with a host of flaws, including poorly translated music and not really fitting in amongst a market of more open games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. This is not a remake, but a re-release, optimized to run on modern systems but seemingly not changed beyond a few inconsequential new features. Continue reading

Update on Anger Management

My prediction about Anger Management’s runaway success has been proven correct, not that that’s a surprise – the première had over 5 million viewers and now holds the record for FX’s highest rated première. Louie, meanwhile, didn’t even reach 2 million viewers, because America is a terrible country filled with terrible people. Also note how the article states Louis C.K. stars on “Louis”.