April 28, 2013

Starhunter, episode 3 "Family Values"

Sorry we're a day behind getting this post up. Igor's been soaking in the sights at C2E2, and you can see his photos here.

In an opening video, Rudolpho tries to say something about families, but it's buried by his eating and laughter.

The Tulip is approaching Mars for its latest mission. In his quarters, Dante has Caravaggio give him half an hour of "maximum privacy" time, which he spends hooking up to a virtual interface headset. It's the anniversary of his marriage, and in the interface, Dante speaks to the digital ghost of his wife, Penny. Her mind was transferred to a computer board just before she died, but it wasn't complete and she's degrading. She sense their son, Travis, is near and tells Dante to hurry and find the boy so she can see him one last time. Back in reality, Percy hacks her way into Dante's room and sees her unconscious uncle hooked to the interface. "Whoa."

Dante and Luc take their shuttle to Mars, where a hundred years of terraforming has made the air breathable, but it's still a harsh wasteland of wind and dust. As they land, a scuzzy conman named Etienne is in the neighboring bazaar, wooing coins out of people with his holographic game of chance. Until the fortune teller across the way points out that Etienne's gorgeous assistant/boyfriend is cheating the game with a remote control. That's also when Etienne sees Dante and Luc coming for him, so he distracts the crowd with coins tossed in the air, then makes a break for it with his boyfriend. Our heroes and their prey make it out into the desert, and it doesn't take the hunters long to catch up as the two have been distracted from their fleeing by a lovers' spat, followed by a tender reconciliation.

On the Tulip, Caravaggio is scolding Percy for invading Dante's privacy, but she's focused on the extreme atmospheric interference preventing her from reaching Dante and Luc. She's trying to tell them to launch the Bird's Eye, a surveillance drone, which they do anyways, giving her an overhead view of their situation. While talking about Mars, Percy reveals to Caravaggio that she's never been to Earth. She then spots a craft zipping past the Bird's Eye. She tries in vain to contact the surface and warn them about Raiders.

On the surface, Etienne and his boyfriend want Dante to marry them, but when Etienne learns he's still on a minimum bounty, his offense leads to another spat, and his boyfriend opts to take cerebral modulation (a temporary rewiring of his brain) over jail time. The Raider craft suddenly swoops into view, exchanging fire with Dante and Luc. Percy orders the Bird's Eye to make an emergency descent straight into the craft, revealing to Caravaggio that she'd rigged it with explosives. The Raider craft goes down, but Percy loses her only ability to keep an eye on her friends as that was the only Bird's Eye.

Dante and Luc dust themselves off, then find Etienne sobbing over the corpse of his boyfriend. They prevent the conman from committing suicide, then examine the wreck of the Raider ship. The pilot has been badly injured, but is still alive. After the hunters fight Etienne away from killing the raider, they make another discovery: also on board was a young boy, whom Dante instantly believes to be his son Travis. Given the Raiders' practice of kidnapping boys as infants, Luc tells Dante he can't be sure this is his son, and the boy is still loyal to his Raider "father", who addresses him as Jeb. They need to get out of the area before other Raiders come to investigate, and there's a storm on the way, so they haul the Raider to his feet and march off towards their shuttle, with Jeb and Etienne - who just buried his boyfriend - in tow.

On the ship, Percy and Caravaggio try to cobble together another drone from scrap, but they aren't having much luck. Percy excuses herself for food, but instead ducks into Dante's room, where she jacks herself into the virtual interface. Penny is proud to see her niece, but tells Percy she shouldn't be there, and that all memory of this encounter will be erased from her mind. In reality, Caravaggio pumps a gas into the room which'll force Percy to resuscitate. She remembers nothing of the encounter.

As the group on the surface takes shelter among ruins, Dante clashes with the Raider, who reveals they were the Black Galaxy Marines, and before the Maxcell (sp?) Influenza Virus wiped its way through humanity, it was engineered and tested on the Marines, who were abandoned and left sterile as a result. Hence, their kidnapped "offspring". Luc spots three Raider ships, and the Raider reveals he and the boy have implanted tracers. Dante tries to force the boy into a pocket DNA test, but the device is damaged and the results inconclusive.

Dante and Luc feel they can still slip away to their shuttle, but it won't hold their three passengers. Etienne volunteers to stay behind with the Raider as a distraction, so the hunters make off with Jeb. When the other Raiders arrive, Etienne uses his holograms to create a swarm of insects which trick the Raiders into opening fire on one another, while he quietly slips away.

On the Tulip, Jeb's tracer has been removed and a DNA analysis run. He's not Travis. His name is Vincent, and his parents are still alive and have been notified. Retreating to his virtual interface, Dante laments over the news with Penny, but she urges him to keep looking. He's then met by Percy, who apologizes to him for invading his privacy.

In her quarters, Luc receives a transmission from an unseen figure she calls "Father", who scolds her for not filing her scheduled report. Back on the surface of Mars, a child passes a beggar, who lifts his hood to reveal Etienne, once again working his way up from the bottom.

On the observation deck, Vincent encounters Dante as they look out at the stars. They share a moment and help one another take a little step towards moving on.


This episode is... odd.

To open on a positive, I finally get Dante Montana as a character. I think the big problem with accepting him in his captain's position has been his passivity. It's been explained to us that this is due to him not wanting to live the life he does because all he really wants to do is be with his long lost son, but it's never connected before because that's been held in the background. Here, it's at the forefront of the storyline, and we not only get to see all of Dante Montana's hopes and vulnerabilities pour out, but we also get to see him take charge and drive the story instead of being either the pawn of the villain or shoved into the background. This episode is Dante Montana's story, which is what I've been waiting for these last three weeks.

A surprising amount of this is conveyed through the interesting twist of his dead wife still being around as some sort of virtual ghost on a circuitboard she downloaded her brain onto. I like this twist, as do I the notion that the file is corrupt and she's gradually flickering away... literally dying again before Dante Montana's eyes, because this increases his sense of urgency and desperation in finding his son. Which mostly explains his extreme treatment of the boy they come across... mostly. It's still a little overdone, but I'll get to that in a second, let me finish with the wife. My only issue with the wife is I feel this is a thread they could have started earlier, and diving into the corruption that's killing her again so early doesn't let this story grow over the course of several episodes, instead leaving it rushed.

And, wow, the virtual reality interface seems a hell of a lot more dangerous than it should be, as though people are giving themselves voluntary seizures just to link in. Which makes sense from a low-tech, cyberpunk perspective, but this far in the future, I'd think this is something they'd smooth out more. And why is the connection so extreme when there's so very little actual sensory input coming in? I mean, there's no full setting or experience being simulated, just a default background and the ghost of a single individual. And that it has the power to erase Percy's memory when she plugs in, that's stretching it a little far for me. I like that Percy has crossed a line and strayed into Dante Montana's private domain, and that she comes to apologize for it, but by robbing her of what she's discovered, they're also robbing her of the consequence that justifies her realization that the line has been crossed, so her apology feels off. Again, part of this could have been helped by drawing this thread over several episodes instead of trying to plow through it in one, especially with Percy deciding the right time to plug in is while her uncle is being hunted by Raiders on the surface. Something she's fully aware of at the time.

Percy also feels like a very different character here than she has in the last few episodes. She still has her eccentricities and the occasional juvenile decision, but she's lost the bounce she had the last two times around. She feels older. She's more focused on the mission and in the moment when things come up. She isn't splayed about the furniture like a cat. She's wearing long sleeves and pants instead of the short sleeves and miniskirt/shorts. She's still the youth of the group, she just feels less youthful than she did. Which isn't a bad thing, it's just different. Before, she had a level of unpredictability to her that could make her dangerous, and she also came off as a tag-on, like the niece who's just along for a ride. Now, she feels like a fully integrated member of the crew. Not that she's suddenly perfect, which would be a poor change to make, but she does feel more - to a degree - mature.

In terms of some of the world-building we've discussed, I notice that Luc is again pointed out as a Ranger. We've been wondering if bounty hunters were being privately used as a cheap police force, but her being a ranked member of some form of police or military service has me wondering if she is actually some form of liaison official overseeing the private operations of Dante Montana. She's still a subordinate to him as captain, but she's the one who's always talking about rules and regulations, and we see her having to file a report to some unseen individual she calls "father" (!!!), so it seems like we do have some form of official police force, and it's being supported by the privatized bounty hunters. Though why she isn't the one in charge if that's the case is anyone's guess. I will say that I like the chemistry she and Dante Montana have formed. There's a professional level of comfort there and they work together well as a team, even as they butt heads over personal approach.

To get back to Dante Montana and the boy, I really like the revelation of who the Raiders are, that they were the elite space marines who conquered the cosmos, only for the ruling party to turn on them and turn them into guinea pigs. The idea of a government manufactured space influenza is a chilling one, and explains why the human population seems so thin against how widely it's been spread out. And the Raiders being a male-only group that uses their forced sterilization as justification to "adopt" stolen boys is an interesting gender-swap on the Amazons of legend, and them renaming the kids they capture at birth means Dante Montana definitely has his work cut out for him in finding his son. As for the boy, I like how he's still trying to kill the bounty hunters and protect his "dad", and is further upset by this stranger trying to hug him and call him by another name. We all know the boy isn't going to be Travis Montana, not this early in the season, so they do draw it out a bit much, especially with the failed DNA test Dante Montana tries to give him on the planet. But I like the end, that Dante Montana takes a moment to bond with this boy, even though he knows for certain it's not his son. It's a nice gift for him to give to a stranger while also getting a little comfort of his own in return. Though the boy does change his mind a little quickly in terms of leaving behind his Raider lifestyle.

Where the episode gets odd is the initial plot to recover the conman Etienne, which become an examination of acceptance of gay couples and gay marriage in the future. It comes completely out of nowhere, and through a comical duo of scoundrels, but I like how they're gay, everyone knows they're gay, but it's never mentioned they're gay. They just are, and act and are treated no differently as a bickering couple than they would had Etienne's boyfriend been his girlfriend. Dante Montana's laughter at their sudden wanting of him as a Captain to marry them would still be the same, as would Luc's exasperation at having to put up with relationship issues in the middle of a mission, and even Etienne's sudden turn to anger and grief at his lover's death would play the same. I can't say it's the best portrayal of a gay couple on TV, but given how it was still a touchy thing to include over a decade ago, I'll take it.

But as to the real oddness, half this episode becomes a band of misfits wandering through a desert. You've got the enraged Etienne, the badly injured Raider he wants to kill, Dante Montana and Luc trying to keep the peace and everyone moving, and the boy that's keeping Dante Montana distracted from doing so. All set again the typical rock quarry you see used for Mars, but with the red sky badly blue screened in, making even this real location feel like a cheap set. And they show the sky A LOT, with only a few high angles keeping it out of view. So this gives a cheap artificiality to half the show, even moreso that whan we typically get from the smooth CGI effects.

And really subtle design work turning Mars into a Middle East of sorts. Everyone in robes and turbans, the main docking port being a bazaar full of peddler, beggars, and fortune tellers. I'm surprised the big twist wasn't finding a lamp with a cyber-genie inside.

It's an uneven episode that goes in some odd directions (what the hell was even up with Rudolpho's bizarre video this time around?), but there's still enough there to enjoy. I wish the thread of Dante Montana's wife had a few more episodes to breathe, but I still like that it's there. Percy is still the most fascinating person to watch, but the others are finally holding their own as characters, with even Dante Montana stepping up and catching my interest. I like the twist of Percy rigging surveillance drones with explosives (bit prescient of a topic, that) and the way Caravaggio digs into her for it. I especially like how Etienne gets a nice hero moment at the end, where he uses his holograms to survive a situation that was otherwise surely fatal, and lives to con again another day. And yes, according to IMDB, he will be back down the road. Which makes me happy.

It's a good episode. Not great, with odd diversions and budgetary issues with some of the effects, but it's still entertaining, has some interesting bits of world-building and setup for future storylines, and some good character work. I enjoyed it. Odd though it may be.


Let's talk about set-up, shall we?

Thanks to the show's opening narration, we know Dante is looking for his son. It's never fully addressed in this episode proper, but we get hints which build on what we've learned from the narration, so when we get an episode that finally tackles Dante's search for Travis head-on, it doesn't come out of nowhere. Finding out he has a copy of his wife's memories recorded on a disk is a surprise, but it doesn't seem out of place, and, as Noel detailed earlier, it helps to develop this plot in an interesting way and give Dante's quest an added sense of urgency.

But then there's a plot element which comes completely out of nowhere: as Dante and Luc are flying into Mars to capture the fugitives, our captain questions his security officer's motivations, suggesting she has some kind of a hidden agenda. The problem is that nothing in the previous two episodes suggested that Luc was anything other than what she appeared - a capable, no-nonsense security officer who cares about her crew and is willing to risk her life to ensure their safety. Was there a cut scene that showed Luc being secretive? And if there was, shouldn't they have cut this exchange, too? It's not like it adds anything to the episode.

(Now, granted, at the end of the episode, we get a scene suggesting that maybe Luc does have a hidden agenda, but that doesn't make the exchange feel any less out-of-nowhere. After all, Dante doesn't know what Luc is doing in her quarters after hours.)

Speaking of things not mattering, the episodes introduce two elements that could have easily been cut and the episode would lose nothing. First, there's Percy discovering Dante's memory disk thingy. When Dante leaves, she goes to try it, gets her memory wiped by Penny's digital ghost, and decides it wasn't worth looking into. If nothing else, I expected her to ask why the hell Dante is keeping around something that, as far is she knows, is life-threatening. Don't forget, by her experience, if it weren't for Caravaggio piping in gas, she could have died or woken up brain-damaged. Instead, she just tells Dante she shouldn't have pried.

Why have Percy try the device if it isn't going to impact the plot? They could have just as easily had her try the device, have it not work for her at all, then have Percy have second thoughts about the whole thing and decide not to pry any further. The end result would have been the same.

Second, there's the whole Etienne subplot. I get why the conman and his lover are there in the first place - they're a reason why Dante is on Mars when a Raider ship happens to be flying by - but it could have just as easily been some other reason, like, I don't know, have them looking for parts for the Tulip. Ultimately, Etienne doesn't contribute anything to the main plot. He's just sort of there. That would be okay if he was charming, or at least generally interesting, but aside from the genuine grief he displays when his lover dies, I find him, at best, a bland conman stereotype, and, at worst, kind of irritating.

Another thing which strikes me about this episode is that Stahunter is looking more and more like Firefly. The captain who's a former member of the military and occasionally wears a brown coat. A group of space marauders who were damaged by a government experiment... And now that we know there is, in fact, a military in this 'verse, and that the government is not adverse to shady experiments, I wouldn't be surprised if something Alliance-like comes around.

And the weirdest thing is that, remember, Starhunter was first. I don't think Whedon would rip off a Canadian show that was pretty obscure here in the States, but...

Then again, maybe it's just me looking for parallels where there aren't any. After all, the Raiders/Amazons parallel Noel suggested above makes sense, too. It didn't even occur to me until he brought it up.

Speaking of Noel's comments, I think there is a perfectly good reason why digital ghost technology is so dangerous. From what I gathered in the episode, Penny developed it herself, it was untested, and, having already lost his son, Dante is desperate enough to try it. It may also explain why he's being so secretive. Carrying around experimental, untested technology may be illegal, and since we now know that Luc has legal authority, he wouldn't want her knowing about it.

As far as Percy, all I can say is that this is the sort of character I expected her to be in “Peer Pressure,” given her position as the ship's engineer, and it's nice to see her actually being that character for a change. And Caravaggio's comment that Percy, out of all people, should appreciate the importance of privacy is a nice callback to the first episode.

Ultimately, I think it's a decent episode, but it would be better if they got rid of all the subplots and premature hints. Or at least did them better.

We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "The Divinity Cluster"

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