May 4, 2013

Starhunter, episode 4 "The Divinity Cluster"

Rudolpho has a video where he say some crap about how he runs his business, molesting a woman, and how things are rarely as they initially appear.

Earth in the present is a smog drenched cesspool. A beautiful, naked blond named Lily is in a hotel room with the drawn and captivating Eccleston. She says it's time for everyone to know the truth, so he injects her with a solution and tells her she has two hours to complete her task. As she leaves, Eccleston suddenly goes into spasms. He swaps out the vial on the syringe and injects himself.

Lily enters a conference of scientists where she cozies up to noted geneticist Professor Renfrew. She seduces him into a makeout session in the ladies room. As her clock reaches zero, she tells him he will "never suppress the Divinity Cluster!", and she explodes, vaporizing him in the fireball. Back at the hotel room, Eccleston smiles as he floats in the air above his bed.

Outside Lunar orbit, Dante supervises Percy as she flies the Tulip into drydock for repairs, which they notify Rudolpho of when he calls wanting to know why they're skipping on out their latest assignment. Dante and Luc head down to the moon for personal leave, with Percy sulking that she's been left on board to supervise the repairs.

At a strip joint, Dante is trading blows with a wily old Scotsman named McDuff. But their sneers turn into smiles as the old friends turn to the bar and chat over drinks. McDuff is Percy's godfather and the man who introduced Dante to bounty hunting 10 years back. He also lost his ship to Raiders and is in need of a final mission worth of cash because he's approaching the end of the line with inoperable brain cancer. Dante offers him a place on the Tulip.

In a locked down room with armed guards, Luc meets her father, Darius, a member of the clandestine ruling council known as the Orchard. He brushes off familial pleasantries because all that's relevant to him is the progress of her mission, which she's still largely in the dark as to what she's supposed to be gathering evidence for. He reveals to her that, several years ago, a hidden layer of genes were uncovered within human DNA, which are believed to have been put there by an extraterrestrial intelligence. Eccleston is the scientist who discovered what he named the Divinity Cluster, as well as the means to tap into and activate it, unlocking superhuman abilities. He needs Luc to find Eccleston.

In an alleyway, Pacquette, another member of the Orchard, gives her own orders to bring Eccleston in... to McDuff.

On the Tulip, Dante finds McDuff and Percy having a laugh in her quarters. The old man digs into Dante for not letting Percy have some fun off the ship and Dante begrudgingly finally gives her permission to go out, with McDuff as her escort. Dante returns to the bridge where Luc shows him the warrant on Eccleston. She's coy about the details, but the warrant is legal and they need the money, so he accepts the bounty. But not before quietly taking another look at Luc's files.

Eccleston is making the love sex with a pair of beautiful ladies, Carmel and Lapis, who are also dedicated to the operation. He seizes up and gives himself another injection.

McDuff shows Percy the sights while teaching her to appreciate how much Dante's lost and why he's so protective of her. With a ping of his beeping thing, McDuff finally locates Eccleston from a tracker he planted earlier. He confronts the shoe- and shirt-less scientist, but Eccleston suddenly bursts into hyperspeed, injecting McDuff with tiny probes that will slowly shut down his nervous system unless he cooperates, by bringing him to a ship.

Eccleston strides onto the Tulip, with a deteriorating McDuff and Percy, just as Dante and Luc were about to head out and catch him. After they force the ship out of drydock and head for Earth, Dante refuses to take any more orders until Eccleston frees McDuff of the probes. Eccleston does, revealing McDuff's brain tumor has been cured during the process, then zips off the bridge with his hyperspeed.

The Orchard has locked onto Eccleston's presence and Pacquette starts moving their troops into position. Darius tries to warn Luc, but she's interrupted by Eccleston, who lashes out and severs the communication link, then reveals he's altered the ship's course to guarantee they'll bring him to Earth orbit. After a confrontation with Dante in which Eccleston promises he's not a threat to the man or his crew, Eccleston hijacks the shuttlecraft and takes Luc with him as the ship suddenly kicks into hyperspace and arrives at Earth far quicker than should be possible.

By intruding Earth space, they've activated drone fighter craft which set in on the Tulip and start punching it with missiles. Percy wants to fight back, but Dante instead has her fly the Tulip down into the Earth's atmosphere, following the shuttlecraft, where they all converge on Los Angeles. The city is now a shaded desert of dark skyscrapers in mist, a lost society which never recovered from a devastating earthquake. At its heart, though, is the neon-lit New Los Angeles.

On the moon, a meeting of the Orchard is held. Darius pleads caution, that Eccleston's importance means he needs to be captured alive. Pacquette instead argues he's become too dangerous and should be eliminated. The Orchard votes on the side of Pacquette. Despite her promise to Darius that Luc will be safe, Pacquette orders her heavily armed troops that anyone who comes between them and Eccleston is expendable.

Luc and a deteriorating Eccleston arrive at a hidden broadcasting station in the back of a warehouse. He gives himself yet another injection, as well as shots for both Carmel and Lapis, who've met him there as his armed support. He offers a shot to Luc, but she turns it down. While Carmel and Lapis hold of the troops out front, Eccleston hacks into all broadcast channels. He floats into the air, glowing, while he tells the cosmos about the truth behind the Divinity Cluster.

As Dante and McDuff arrive on the scene, they find the soldiers have been mostly mowed down by Carmel and Lapis, who themselves are dying from bullet wounds as their injections wear away. As the hunters enter the broadcasting room, they join Luc in gaping at Eccleston as he dissolves himself into pure energy and scatters into space.

On the Tulip, Darius finally tells Luc that her mission is to uncover everything she can about the Divinity Cluster, so it can be released to the world instead of being controlled by the Orchard. He's on the outs with the council, which has shifted to Pacquette, but still has powerful friends and promises his daughter he'll stay safe.

A scan confirms to McDuff that he's been cured of his cancer, but he decides to head out on his own instead of staying with the crew. But not before one last playful chase after Percy around the ship.

Dante kicks back for a voiceover about how he doesn't care about anything but finding Travis, as the energy that was Eccleston forms into a DNA helix in the dark of space.


"The Divinity Cluster” is an interesting episode to review, for reasons that have nothing to do with the episode’s plot - at least not per se. As Noel mentioned in the introductory post, the DVD episode order, the order the creators originally intended, differs somewhat from the order in which the episodes actually aired. So while "Peer Pressure" was the intended first episode, it was “The Divinity Cluster” which actually served as an introduction to Starhunter for people who originally watched it over the air.

And so, as I set out to watch the episode, I tried to see how it worked as the fourth episode of the series vs how well it worked as a de facto pilot.

As a pilot, the episode isn’t actually that bad. It establishes the main cast, their relationships with each other, the overarching conflicts of the series (including potential recurring antagonists), and the plot points that could be explored in later episodes. And unlike “Peer Pressure”, we don’t see said main characters acting like complete idiots. There is no question that this is a better introduction to the series.

At the same time, there are parts of it that work better if it’s the fourth episode than if it’s a pilot. The previous episode had Luc talking to a shadowy “father” and, in this episode, that plot point pays off. If we treat “The Divinity Cluster” as a pilot, then the plot about Dante’s son being missing would feel horribly under-developed. We get a mention that he has a son, have other characters talk about how it affected him, but we don’t see him being all that torn up about it. But the people who watch the show in its intended order would have already seen how Travis’ kidnapping affected Dante. They wouldn’t need to have “The Divinity Cluster” touch upon this plot point all that much because they would have already seen an entire episode that focused on it.

But what doesn’t make sense, no matter the order you watch it, is Dante’s glaring indifference to encountering a being with god-like powers. Towards the end of the episode, he basically says: "Well, that was weird, but it’s not like it’s important.” I get that he’s driven to find Travis, especially with a digital ghost of his wife deteriorating and all, but we’re talking about something that fundamentally alters his understanding of what human beings can or cannot do. I know that would give me a pause. If I were in Dante’s shoes, I would at least wonder where Eccleston came from. If there was one of him, maybe there are more. And if Eccleston could hijack all communications, maybe he can tap into Raiders’ communications and track Travis down. I mean, it would be a long shot, but based on his actions in “Family Values”, it seems like Dante would be desperate enough to at least consider it.

Then again, Dante doesn’t come off too well in this episode. I’ve talked in length about his lack of charisma, but how there are moments where he comes off as likable anyway. Dante has some good moments when he interacts with McDuff, but for much of the episode, he just seems kind of bored. For some reason, Michael Pare just didn’t seem to make that much of an effort.

Thankfully, we have McDuff to compensate a bit for the charisma void. The character is a bit of a cliché (A Shady Old-Time Bounty Hunter With Connections to the Hero), but the actor gives him enough life and personality to be entertaining. And like I said earlier, the interactions between him and Dante are the only times where Pare actually tries to do some decent acting beyond stoic/sullen/confused, so that alone makes his presence welcome.

As for the antagonist of the episode... I’m not sure what to make of Eccleston, exactly. What the heck is his deal? He sleeps with at least two women, because... fanservice? I get that he uses the blonde at the beginning of the episode to kill a geneticist, but why did she go along with what's essentially a suicide mission? Is Eccelston just that good in bed? And why did they kill that geneticist, anyway?

I’m also kind of confused about what the heck the deal is with the injections he keeps taking. At first, I figured it was the Jason Ironheart sort of thing, with Eccelston injecting himself with something that helps him keep himself together until he reaches Earth. But then I remembered that one of those injections seemed to have unlocked the Blonde Curly-Haired Girl’s Divinity Cluster potential, which made her self-detonate. Wouldn’t that make his condition worse?

I think I can understand Eccelston’s endgame. He's trying to show humanity that the Divinity Cluster exists and it can give everybody god-like powers. But then, he just sort of… explodes? Or, like Jason Ironheart, ascends to a higher plane of existence? That last part is probably intentionally ambiguous, since there's still most of the season left to go, but it doesn't ease my confusion any.

It doesn’t help that, unlike Jason Ironheart, Eccelston didn’t come off as particularly likable. Sending a girl on a suicide mission, nearly killing McDuff, cackling and gloating like your run of the mill Villain Mastermind wannabe. He does get rid of McDuff’s brain tumor, but that comes so completely out of nowhere that it just added to my confusion about what he's trying to do.

Now, granted, the episode doesn't really go into that much detail regarding the Orchard's motivations. We know they're interested in the Divinity Cluster, they either have government connections or are a government agency... and that's about it. But unlike Eccelston, they're not here for just one episode. There will be plenty of opportunities to flesh them out and clarify their objectives. Besides, Secret Conspiracy That Is After a Powerful Artifact is such a well-trodden trope that you don’t really need to know much about them in order to get an idea of what they are.

It will be interesting to see how the Orchard is developed. Will its purpose actually be clarified? Or will it remain a collection of vague hints and generalities, adding up to nothing? In most TV shows, it tends to be the later, but you never know.

Finally, I have to mention something that caught me completely off guard. They show breasts in this episode. Completely uncensored. And the camera lingers on them for a few seconds.

We have topless female nudity on a TV show which was broadcast over the air in the United States. Not on premium cable, or even on regular cable - just regular independent television stations, viewable to anyone with an antenna. I know that Canadian shows tend to be more open to exploring sexual themes than American shows, but still...

Come to think of it, even the sci-fi shows which depict sex on screen (the Battlestar Galactica reboot being one of the most prominent examples) tend to shy away from actual nudity. The only other example I can think of is Forbidden Science, but that was one of Cinemax's Porn With Plot type shows, so I'm not sure that even counts. I wonder if that scene was even in the original airing of "The Divinity Cluster". The DVD cover does promise "unrated bonus footage." And now I'm wondering if Starhunter has any more "unrated footage" in store for us.

What? I'm allowed to make pervy comments, too.


As to the naked depiction of exposed mammary glands, the answer is actually pretty simple. This show aired on The Movie Network, an upper tier, premium subscription cable channel. The Canadian equivalent to Showtime, if you will. Think back to the 90s, when Showtime created a solid handful of genre content which it would later repackage for syndication to basic cable or even local networks. Stargate SG-1. The Outer Limits. Total Recall 2070. Odyssey 5. There's others, but all of these shows included nudity in their first runs (that's why disc 1 of Stargate's first season has an R-rating), and all of them were designed to have alternate cuts which would snip the nudity for syndication. So no, there was no nudity on Starhunter when it aired down here. Like Lexx (another upper tier Canadian/European co-production), we were denied access to the boobular funbag goodness.

And speaking of the bearer of the bosoms, yeah, the women surrounding Eccleston are never really explained, and don't make any particular sense. One could argue they're cult-like followers of a sort, but they seem more practical and level headed than the typical brainwashed believer. I think we needed to see more of whatever this is, be it a following or equal partners in this underground rebellion, in order for it to really sell. The ladies are certainly striking, but that's more in the brutal ways they go out than in their impact as characters. The last one gasping her final breaths as she bleeds out from bullet wounds is an especially harsh moment, and an odd level of focus to be placed on her given her lack of any form of development as a character.

As to Eccleston's Divinity Cluster abilities, that does make sense. He has different vials that do different things, so what he's doing to his Divinity Cluster isn't the same as what he's doing to the women, nor to McDuff. The Divinity Cluster is essentially being treated as nano-mites. Once they've been activated, they can be programmed to perform specific tasks inside a body. With the nekkid lady, they create a countdown to her suicide explosion. In McDuff, they trigger, then reverse, a neurological shutdown (while also curing his brain cancer). In Eccleston himself, he's gradually unlocking superhuman abilities - defying gravity, moving at superspeed, making his skin extra impervious (I'm guessing on that one from his lack of shoes). He's doing specific things with the injections every time he takes one, instead of it just being a one-and-done shot that will have the same effect on everyone.

[EDIT: Having just rewatched the show for the writing of the synopsis, he specifically injects McDuff with "neurogenetic probes", so that at least has nothing to do with the Divinity Cluster.]

What confuses me about this story is, why not just make it nanomites? Why can't he just be a person who's pushed nanotechnology to the point where he's able to accelerate evolution, and have him be on the run because the Orchard wants to get their hands on the potential profits of the technology. The episode would largely play out the exact same way, with infighting in the Orchard and various parties being hired to jump on his tail. Instead, there's this spin of it being latent particles in our bodies left behind by aliens who helped engineer our evolution. I'm not saying this is a bad thread, it just doesn't feel necessary, and it's the show reaching further in one meal than it really needs to. This episode is already big enough, and that thread additionally feels a bit out of place in a universe where, like Firefly, we've yet to see a lifeform that isn't Terran.

Otherwise, I still like the escalation of events. Eccleston looks a little silly when he's floating in the air, but I otherwise like his appearance, the use of his other powers, and the constant toll we can see it take on his body. Mark Powley gives a surprisingly layered performance as he goes from a menacing unknown to revealing he is a man who lives by ethics, he's just been forced to compromise those ethics because of the position he's been put in. The means through which he takes in his refusal to back down aren't exactly commendable, but they are understandable, and I like how, in his takeover of the Tulip, he's no crueler than he feels is absolutely necessary, spending more time zipping away and avoiding the crew than he does forcing their hand. And as an aside, had this show been made several years later, we all know his name of "Eccleston" would be a specific reference to a certain show. As it is, maybe the writer was just a fan of Danny Boyle character actors. :)

As to the crew of the Tulip, I've largely accepted by now that Dante is going to be the passive one who's holding everyone back. It's a weak characterization, but at least it's been consistent. The introduction of McDuff sparks some life into him due to their rivalry, but I'm surprised they didn't actually kill the other man to give Dante a little arc of some additional loss. Not that I don't enjoy me some McDuff, whose kilt and broguish flair make up for his bizarre eyebrows, but I looked and the character never again appears on the series. I'm betting the producers intended to use the open door of his departure to bring him back some day, but they didn't, and since Dante was only ever invested in the story when McDuff was in danger (well, a bit with Luc there near the climax, too), having him lose McDuff would have added a nice bit of poignancy to his part, and further cemented his resolve to not lose Luc, as well.

Additionally, Igor thoroughly detailed the continuity between this episode and the last, but I'll add a few others. In the last, the ship was dangerously in need of repairs. In this one, they have to turn down a job because they're so in need of them they have to come back to Earth's moon and drydock. Which all goes to pot when they're battered with missiles in the climax. Also, we learned last time that Percy has never been to Earth. Here she flies the Tulip itself down into our smogged over atmosphere. Sure, Dante still probably refuses to let her leave the ship (just give the girl a day off, man - what the hell!) but she made it to Earth. Sorta.

The big one though is definitely Luc, as we finally see the icy relationship with her father which has led her to be a sarcastic regulations nut. I'm actually surprised they resolved this thread so quickly, but one of the things I praised Farscape for (during all four season which you can read about at the Deconstructing Moya blog plug plug plug) was its ability to burn through as much story in one or two episodes as most shows would take an entire season to drag out. Starhunter is a little more clumsy at it, but I still appreciate the momentum of just how far this episode goes in so fast a span of time. Eccleston is something they could have drawn out, but they plow through it in one go. The mystery of who Luc is talking to could have been drawn out, but we had the setup, immediately followed by the resolution.

Which isn't to say they've nipped all their threads, as we still have the intriguing introduction of the Orchard, which appears to be a cabal of powerful individuals who secretly run everything, especially the closer one gets to Earth. They seem more like the rich and powerful than they do elected politicians, again hinting at the privatization of this universe, and I like how it's filled with all the infighting and alliances one typically gets in a game of thrones. We've still only just scratched the surface, though, with Luc's father Darius on one side, the icy Pacquette on the other, leading to a clash between our heroes and the military/police themselves near the end, which they're miraculously able to just walk away from. It'll be very interesting to see how this thread develops over time.

Overall, there's still the uneven bit here and there, but this was a solid episode that elevated this somewhat stale series to a whole new level, and I hope we get to see more episodes like it in the future. As to the viewing order, as much as I'm a fan of continuity, I can see why it was decided to ultimately open the show with this one as it comes running out of the gate strong. As opposed to our last three outings which, while they did get better with each installment, did so mostly just in relation to how embarrassingly weak things began with "Pole Position" "Peer Pressure". In other words, I'm glad we're watching the show in the proper, intended order, but I can appreciate why they scrambled the first few in the way they did. Had I tuned in on the debut night and seen "Peer Pressure", I absolutely wouldn't have been back the following week.

And as a final thought, can we stop with the annoying Rudolpho opening vids? Please?

We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "Siren's Song".

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