We open on a video of a husky dude named Adolphus joking about his "first time" before he gives our heroes a mission to recover a mother and son. We then cut to a video of the beautiful but piercing Dr. Nasreen, standing over a man who's been strapped to a table with a device wrapped around his head. Blood is crusted in his nose. She asks him a series of control questions, focused mainly on the unconditionality of "A mother's love is never wrong." She then orders him to stand up, but when he tries, his expression turns pained and he starts to thrash. He then goes still. She turns back to her work, saying, "A mother's love is never wrong." Through a window on a door, we see the eyes of her teenage son, Ajit, turn away.
A small craft rises away from a lab facility on the dusty planet Mimus, entering orbit, where it docks with Tulip, the massive, partial shell of a once mighty cruise liner, still marked with the old title of "Trans-Utopia Cruiseship HHS". Exiting the craft are the weary bounty hunter Dante Montana, along with Dr. Nasreen in cuffs and her son tagging behind. Dante's confronted by his security officer Lucretia “Luc” Scott, who's incensed at the presence of Ajit, the boy not being restrained, and how this messes with Adolphus' orders. Dante begrudgingly lets Luc take them off to holding, then notices his teenage niece, Percy (also the ship's engineer), watching. Her eyes are on Ajit.
All three of our leads are simultaneously monitoring the prisoners, Luc eventually getting bored and wandering off, Percy drawn to the nervous Ajit, and Dante noticing Dr. Nasreen loosen her clothing to flirt with the camera. With Percy locked in her room and ignoring his calls, Dante heads down to the holding area himself to give the prisoners a meal. Nasreen tries to woo Dante with compliments, but he's more interested in the boy, and when he learns Ajit's father abandoned him, he cuts the teen loose and sends him to the observation deck to take in the view. Nasreen seems livid and orders her boy to stay, but Dante sends him away. Dante leaves, suddenly becoming angry as he confronts Luc on the bridge and orders her to never contradict him in front of prisoners. He storms off.
When Percy sees that Ajit is free, she freaks about how to present herself should she meet him, which isn't helped by teasing from the ship's computer A.I., Caravaggio. She eventually saunters her way onto the observation deck and starts up small talk, she about the ship and how rarely she gets to talk to anyone her own age, he about his time at school and hopes for the future.
When Nasreen refuses to eat the food she's been given, Dante brings her some other options, which she again refuses. When she learns of Dante's grief over his missing son, she offers to help, using a device on her wrist to scan his brain for "traumatic stress". She says everything looks normal, except his diet. He should let her out so she can access his galley. Just as Dante refuses, he suddenly winces from a pain in his head. She gradually talks him into trusting her as his pain gives way to confusion. He lets her out and they go to the galley. She gives his brain additional "scans" while they eat. Luc suddenly storms in, wondering why the prisoner is out of lockup. After another pained wince, Dante chews her out and storms off with Nasreen. As they wander the halls, Dante is increasingly confused and distressed as Nasreen's orders to find her son send him curling to the floor in pain.
Luc and Caravaggio start digging into Nasreen's work and discover her "scanner" bracelet is a device designed to cut prison costs by keeping inmates forcefully docile. "If a subject disobeys, the cerebral cortex essentially self-destructs." Luc instantly tracks down Ajit, dragging him away from Percy and back to his cell, then sets out to find Nasreen. Pissed at Caravaggio for depriving her of Ajit, Percy alters his directional matrix so she can no longer be tracked by his systems (which his backup systems later override). She also uses him to unlock Ajit's cell and guide the boy to her room. Ajit initially protests the risk Percy is taking, but she silences him with a kiss. He tries to reveal how dangerous his mother is, but Percy isn't interested, and he instead asks for help in getting away. Which she'll do. And gladly leave with him. When they head off, they're confronted by Caravaggio. Percy refuses to return to her quarters, so Caravaggio plays for Ajit embarrassing footage of Percy preening in front of her mirror. Percy storms off.
Luc tracks down Nasreen and starts slapping on the cuffs when Nasreen orders Dante to fight his shipmate away. When he gets a gun and is ordered to kill Luc, the pain swells in his head and he tells her to run as he drops to the floor, Nasreen continually shouting "Obey me!" She continues the conditioning until Dante is largely a mindless slave. Luc and Caravaggio eventually work out the purpose of the wrist device and the frequencies it operates on, and Caravaggio is able to infuse Luc's brain with a temporary shield against it.
Luc confronts Nasreen and Dante again, Dante bleeding from the nose in his struggle not to shoot his shipmate, but Nasreen orders him down when she hits Luc's eyes with the wrist device. Luc fakes mind control until she gets close enough to attack Nasreen, but the Dr. orders Dante to start dying, sending Luc into retreat. Nasreen orders Dante to hunt Luc down. Luc eventually gets the drop on Nasreen, demanding a cure for Dante, but Nasreen reveals that the primary flaw of the procedure is that it's permanent. Nasreen has equipment in her lab back on Mimas to try a cure, but it's never been successful before (as seen in the opening video). Luc orders them all back to Mimas, and if Dante dies, she vows Nasreen's son will follow.
Pissed at her humiliation, Percy activates a subroutine that halves Caravaggio's processing function, effectively making him a useless idiot. She then finds a holorecording outside her door, where Ajit says he cares for her and apologizes for dragging her into his problems. They meet, pondering their parents, or lack of such in Percy's case (killed by Raiders). They're called to the bridge, where Percy's finally filled in on what all's gone down, and ordered to fix Caravaggio. Seeing Dante's condition and Percy's sudden concern for him, Ajit is hit hard by the consequences of his mother's actions.
They're soon back on Mimas, with Dante strapped to the table with the device around his head, but Nasreen refuses to help him unless she and her son are guaranteed freedom and passage to the nearest port. Luc begrudgingly agrees, and the procedure begins. Nasreen sends Percy and Ajit into the corridor to check the air system, then pounces on Luc at her earliest opportunity, beating the other woman unconscious. In the hall, Ajit tries to talk to Percy, but she rejects him. He returns to the lab, shocked at Luc's current state, and tries to protest his mother's plan to kill them all and steal the ship. She shocks him into silence by pulling him into a kiss. A little "mother's love".
Nasreen gives Ajit another wrist device, telling him to use it on Percy if he really wants to bring the girl with. When he approaches Percy and she sees the device, she tries to flee, but Ajit tosses the device away and says he can be trusted. Just as his mother enters the hall, he gives Percy a kiss goodbye, then enters an airlock. While his mother watches, he vents himself into space. Stunned, Nasreen uses the wrist device on herself to eliminate her own will. Just as Luc and Dante both recover and come onto the scene.
Back on Tulip, Dante is making a full recovery. He heads to Percy's quarters to check in on her, but eventually follows Caravaggio's advice to give her some alone time. In her room, she's curled up on bed, playing Ajit's last holo recording again before finally saying "goodbye".
In her holding cell, Dr. Nasreen is now a blind, mindless thing, rocking back and forth as she repeats, "Tell me what to do. Tell me what to do. Tell me what to do."
Rarely have I seen a pilot where the mission statement is so clearly defined, as this fully succeeds in demonstrating for us that the crew we're about to follow for half a year consists of a captain who's a complete moron (and that's before he succumbs to mind control), a technician who's an infantile narcissist who will compromise essential ship systems just to make a point, said easily compromised and snooty ship's computer, and a second-in-command who's the only person on this damn ship capable of getting anything done... after she spends half the episode trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Not only have they thoroughly presented these people as a core cast of characters I have very little interest in exploring - let alone believe cable of basic human function and reasoning - they've also painted them on as dull a canvas as possible.
But at least the music is nice.
Let's start with Dante Montana.... *snicker* Yes, the male lead of this show is named Dante Montana. To be fair, he's being played by the dude who once got in a sledgehammer fight with Willem Dafoe - who was wearing tight pants made from trash bags at the time - but Pare was long past those days by this point, and Dante Montana is gonna be a tough name to sell. As a character, his title sequence search for his son doesn't come into play this episode as we're instead catching him in the middle of his day-to-day grind, transporting the latest "guilty until proven innocent" bounty to her fate. As well as her teenage son. Who's brought along despite not being the bounty. And locked in a cage despite having done nothing wrong. And let out of the cage despite being a security risk due to his familial allegiance with a murderer with a bounty on her head. Seriously, Dante Montana just lets the boy out so he can go upstairs and look out a window. Completely unsupervised. Doesn't get to take his food with him, but there's the door and out you go. And sure enough... the kid is completely trustworthy and just goes upstairs and looks out the window. Huh.
So after showing an entire chain of ineptitude in his chosen profession, Dante Montana gets hypnotized, and we get to watch Michael Pare make a bunch of constipated expressions as he struggles to defy orders to kill his own crew. To his credit, Pare gives it a good effort, and he does still have the great everyman hero charisma that briefly made him a star, so it's definitely captivating stuff to watch. Doesn't save the character one bit, but good acting. And it pretty much sidelines him for the rest of the episode.
Which leaves the bulk of the action and heroic daring-do reins to be taken up by Lucretia Scott, the ship's security officer. Claudette Roche is great in the part, giving the role a layer of class, grace, and strength that elevates her material far higher than the rest of the performers. The second half of the story is actually pretty clever as she's trying to figure out how to save her captain from his mind control without killing him in the process, logically breaking down several sound strategies that ultimately don't work, until she gets lucky enough to put a gun to the villain's head and force a solution. It shows her as both a capable thinker and a fighter, someone far better suited to run this ship than the limp noodle at its helm. Unfortunately, it takes a while to get there, as she spends the first half of the episode wondering what the hell is going on. Even when she clearly sees Dante Montana wince in pain as he tries to defy the evil one's order, then gives in, she fails to put two and two together for several more scenes.
Then there's Percy. I can see why I had a crush on Percy, because she's the snark pixie tech geek girl fantasy guys like me shoehorn into their stories just to drool over the experience of putting words in her mouth (I've since gotten over that phase - I swear). She's perky, pigtailed, able to hack anything with a few pecks at the keyboard on her I love the Powerglove it's so bad, and she likes to wear tight pink t-shirts while practicing in front of a mirror various ways to thrust her boobs out towards guys. Tanya Allen looks the part well, but her line delivery is oddly mumbly at times and deflates a few zingers. Percy is also reckless and juvenile to a ridiculous degree, to the point where she remains completely clueless for well beyond the point after Lucretia finally figured out what the hell was going on, but completely disables the ships A.I. - y'know, the one without whom functions like basic navigation are unable to be performed - just because it embarrassed her in front of a boy. A scrawny teenage boy who she's instantly attracted to from the first time she saw him all sweaty, jittery, and wide-eyed.
Which brings us to the central plot of the episode, that of the wicked Dr. Nasreen and her son Ajit. Laura Landauer is awful, the absolute low-point of the episode, with not even her good looks able to make up for her horribly awkward spitting of dialogue, and there's never any motive behind Nasreen's killing spree and mental enslavement aside from "SCIENCE!!!" Jasbir Mann is much better, giving Ajit a sympathetic air of youthful uncertainty and some nice chemistry in his relationship with Percy. But he's still struggling with gaps in the material as we barely ever see he and his mother together, never getting any sense of what their bond is like and why he's debating what choice to make regarding her fate. There's an insane moment where she tries to make out with him, and from his reaction, it's pretty obvious this came out of the blue as a result of her increasingly psychotic power trip, so I'm
And then things get really stupid. I love the moment where Percy sees Ajit approaching with the hypno-bracelet, only for him to prove himself to her by discarding it and showing he can be trusted, but of all the ways this scenario could have played out, him blowing himself out an airlock so that his suicide will cause his mother to wipe her own mind is so bugnuts ridiculous a gamble that I actually shouted at my TV the other possibilities. A) USE THE BRACELET ON YOUR MOTHER as soon as she gives it to you. B) As you walk out the door, instantly turn around and USE THE BRACELET ON YOUR MOTHER. C) Once Percy trusts you, have her pretend to be under your control so you can get close enough to USE THE BRACELET ON YOUR MOTHER. You. Have. A. Bracelet. You don't need to concoct a way to get your mother to use her's on herself... BECAUSE YOU HAVE YOUR OWN. And to bet that she'd do what she does to herself as a result of your suicide instead of, I don't know, taking out her grief by SLAUGHTERING ALL OF THE PEOPLE YOU TRIED TO SAVE is one hell of a bet, and the fact that it actually works out that way is the final piece of evidence required to have this script convicted of being criminally horrid.
And that's the thing this episode can't save itself from: the writing. This script is, plain and simple, shit. There's a decent basic plot setup in there, but the characters are bizarre in a bad way, moronic decisions are made, dramatic opportunities missed, others awkwardly forced, and the entire climax crumbles down faster than a failed casino. And the dialogue is this stiff, random stuff that just kinda lurches from line to line, tripping up the actors who can't rise above it, and unworthy of those who can. Annie Ingham only has one other episode credit on the show, the only other credit in her entire career that I can see, and based on her work here, those are two credits too many.
Now for a compliment or two. I have absolutely no issues with Murray Melvin as the holographic A.I., Caravaggio. He has the great snooty professionalism of a classic narrative butler, and spends so much time being hacked or ordered around that he doesn't get a chance to make a stupid decision like everyone else. I also really like the unique design of his transparent, unfinished bust of a "body". In fact, I like a lot of the design and effects work on the show. It's obviously done on the cheap and the smoothness of the CGI textures hasn't aged too well, but it's still nicely animated with a zero-gravity grace and genuine mass. I wish Tulip had a design that more closely echoes its origins as a luxury cruise liner, but I still like its outstretched "arms" and ragged gaps where chunks of it have been torn off.
My only issue from a design standpoint is that everything is so gray. There are a lot of similarities to Firefly, in both clothing and set construction, but while the later show brought a western warmth to things with autumn browns and ambers, Starhunter goes with the gray of cold moon dust. And this has a chilling effect on the mood as a whole, taking the somber story and characters and setting, and boring their moroseness even lower to the realm of pure gloom. Percy is a nice firework of pink, and Caravaggio a glowing shade of... urine, but everything else is so colorless as to sap away the lives these characters already lack.
So, no, we're not off to a good start with this one. On some levels, it feels like skilled people pulling off what they can with an extremely low budget. On others, it's total amateur hour. At the moment, the amateurs are leading the race.
But at least the music is nice.
Let's talk about charisma, shall we?
In any work of fiction, we want to have at least one character we can like. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to like what that character does. Marty Kan, the protagonist of the House of Lies, spends every episode trying to get as much money as possible out of his clients. Whether or not what he does helps the clients is beside the point, and Kaan is quite upfront about that, but he’s such a compelling and charismatic screen presence that, while the viewers may not necessarily root for him, they are interested enough to want to see what he does next.
Or, for a less extreme example, consider the lead character from the show we’ve been comparing (and probably will continue to compare in posts to come) Starhunter to: Firefly. Captain Malcolm Reynolds makes fun of some of his crewmembers, regularly derides his love interest’s profession, and can be quite ruthless on occasion. Now, Capt. Reynolds has positive qualities that balance it out, but I would argue that his charisma helps to blunt some of his less admirable moments. One never looses the sense that he is a good person whose idealism is worn down by loss, tragedy, and repeated disappointments.
The problem with charisma is that it’s not something that comes easily. It’s not something that every actor can pull off. So when you write a character as a charismatic lead, if the actor isn’t up to par...
I think, with Dante Montana, the Starhunter creators wanted to have a basically likable Average Joe. He’s a bounty hunter, but bounty hunting doesn’t mean anything to him. It’s just something he does to get by. And he’s so consumed by the loss of his son that he doesn’t find much joy in anything else.
On paper, that can be an interesting character. But charisma, that elusive beast, hasn’t seen fit to bless Michael Pare with its touch. At least not in this role. And so we're left with a character who is broody, angry, and basically not really likable at all. When he yells at Luc, I want her to punch his teeth in because he's being such an ass. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the reaction the showrunners were hoping for.
It doesn’t help that, as Noel so rightfully said in his contribution, Dante Montana is pretty daft in this episode. I can understand him letting Ajit wander around - he lost a son, which gives him a bit of a blind spot when it comes to boys who wind up in bad circumstances through no fault of their own - but letting a murdering scientist type scan him with a device she happens to be carrying? Not asking Caravaggio to do a medical scan once he's been exposed to said device? I get that Dante doesn’t particularly care about bounty hunting, but this shows a pretty astonishing lack of caution, or the sort of healthy paranoia that he should have, by all rights, developed after transporting dangerous criminals for however many years.
As Noel said, Pare actually does a decent job with the mind coercion/control scenes, but that doesn’t really help much. Not when we know that the character got into this mess because he was too bloody trusting to live.
Unlike our male lead, Lucretia “Luc” Scott does have some charisma. Watching the episode again, I can't help but be reminded of Mace from Strange Days... if Mace wasn’t properly paranoid and couldn’t pick up on pretty blatant hints that something is amiss. Once she does catch on, she becomes the sort of competent security officer I remembered from watching Starhunter all those years ago - a capable combatant who can think strategically and adapt when her plans fail. But the earlier inability to pick up on the obvious still taints the character for me.
We’ll just have to see if the next few episodes will change that.
As for Percy... Percy, Percy, Percy... One thing I recall enjoying about the character is the whole “I’m so bored/jaded” approach to the plot. I remember finding her attitude refreshing, and, honestly, still kind of do... up to a point. I get her interest in Ajit - she doesn’t really socialize with anyone in her age group, let alone form relationships. And let’s face it, she’s a teenager, with all the hormonal baggage that implies. I actually find the whole "practicing flirting and pushing up her boobs" scene kind of endearing, reminding me of a similar scene with Miley Cyrus’ character in the American remake of LOL (except Cyrus’ Lola comes off as more naïve than Percy ever did).
Speaking of naïve, one thing I can’t really excuse is the bloody recklessness and disregard for the safety of her crewmates. Teenagers can be incredibly egocentric, but sabotaging an A.I. vital to the ship’s regular operations out of sheer spite seems a bit much. Especially since Percy, an engineer, should understand how Caravagio fits into the Tulip’s operations better than anyone.
Unlike Noel, I don’t particularly blame her for not realizing just how bad things have gotten by that point - nobody told her. Once Luc understood what Dr. Nasreen is up to, I would expect her to try to alert Percy almost immediately. After all, Percy is alone and defenseless. But, for some reason, she never does.
Back when I first watched the series, Caravaggio was one of my favorite characters (it was him and Percy), and I’m glad the episode doesn't disappoint in that regard. I do have to wonder, though, he says he has back-up systems upon back-up systems, but there are no redundancies for sudden reduction of processing power? Given that so much of the ship depends on Caravaggio, one would think there would be at least some built-in alerts. Something along the lines of “Warning: your AI is running low on memory. Please check your processes.”
Or is that just me?
As far as Dr. Nasreen and Ajit, I don’t really have much to say that Noel hasn’t said already. I would add that, with Ajit, we have the clearest case of a good actor let down by a rubbish script. You can tell Jasbir Mann has the talent, but the lines he's been given still make the character look bad. I'm particularly annoyed by the part where he refuses to tell Percy why his mother is so dangerous. There's no real reason why he shouldn’t. I could see him being reluctant if it was simply the matter of “My mother is being flirty and it’s creeping me out,” but what exactly stops him from saying “My mother kills people with her mind killing thing that she just happens to be still carrying, so you should watch out!”
As for Ajit’s final... exit, I can actually see some logic in that. With Dante, we’ve seen that people can resist the mind control, at least in the beginning. If Ajit uses the bracelet on his mother, there's a chance she could try to fight back. He has to make her want to succumb to the bracelet’s effects.
Throughout the entire episode, Dr. Nasreen talks about how a mother’s love is never wrong, which I've taken to mean that, in her own mind, she thinks she's doing everything for Ajit. At least, that's how she justifies it to herself.
Having Ajit kill himself, even after everything she did to (in her own mind) ensure his happiness, is be more than a blow to her ego - it destroys her world. And rather than deal with the emotional pain, she decides to take away her own free will. After all, as she told Dante earlier in the episode, it’s so much easier when you don’t have to make decisions - and, by extension, deal with their consequences.
Of course, even if that’s what Ajit was trying to do, the plan still has a lot of flaws. While her reaction can be explained, it's by no means a guaranteed reaction. And the plan doesn't leave any room for the possibility that Dr. Nasreen might, for example, decide to kill everyone instead.
In short, while I don’t think it's an illogical course of action, it isn't necessarily a good plan, either.
Ultimately, the biggest weakness of this episode is the script. It's bad enough that the characters come off as idiots (Dante), careless (Luc, Ajit), or monstrously self-centered (Percy). And the dialogue... Oh, good Lord, the dialogue.
I knew it was going to be bad going in, I just didn’t quite realize how bad. When I first watched the show, I had a decent grasp of English, but my knowledge of the language and the vocabulary has improved leaps and bounds since then, which makes the dialogue sound that much worse. Some lines are bad because they're clichés played straight. Others are bad because... they're just plain unoriginal, uncreative, uninspiring, and generally lacking anything that suggests personality.
Finally, I figure I might as well add my own two cents to the set design. The CGI is... well, pretty much what you expect, given the budget. But I'm also kind of impressed by the ship’s interiors. The Tulip is meant to be a former cruise ship, and the interiors reflect that. They have some palatial touches – stained glass window designs in the rooms, the carvings on the hallway walls, etc. The bridge looks kind of utilitarian, but then, it’s not like its original customers would have seen the bridge, so I guess it makes sense.
And yes, Noel, the music is pretty nice.
I await the next episode with a mix of excitement and dread. Will Dante continue to be an unlikable douche? Will Luc show some confidence? Will Percy continue to endanger the Tulip for silly personal vendettas? Or, perhaps, will she actually learn from her mistakes?
Whatever else may happen, at least Caravaggio will continue to be delightfully sarcastic.
Please, recapper gods, don't let me jinx it.
We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "Trust".