May 11, 2013

Starhunter, episode 5 "Siren's Song"

In a drunken video, Rudolpho drones on about dreams and monsters.

Rudolpho then contacts the Tulip, telling Dante than there's been a meltdown on the ultra-prison on Ganymede, and that 32 prisoners have escape... all of which offer pricey bounties for their capture. Dante's not interested, but he owes Rudolpho 5 years back rent on the ship.

The smoothly unstable Pretrakist and a handful of fellow escaped prisoners hijack a private space yacht, and casually start shooting their way through the wealthy hostages for laughs.

Our heroes pick up a distress call from the yacht and move into pursuit, killing its electronics with a pulse, then using a docking rig that cuts straight into the hull. Dante and Luc then charge in, fully armed. All of the prisoners but Pretrakist surrender, and when he hears Dante adding up their bounties, he shoots and kills them all just before turning himself in, thus intentionally screwing with Dante's earnings.

Pretrakist is thrown in the Tulip's holding deck, and Dante waits for a rescue craft to show up to help the surviving hostages before taking off. Luc lectures Dante about his detached recklessness and storms off. Percy suggest dumping Luc from the crew, but Dante says he needs someone to keep him in check.

With a sudden lurch, Caravaggio informs the crew they've been forcibly docked by a Special Ops unit led by Major Wayne Bartlett, who invokes protocol to commandeer the Tulip so he and his heavily armed forces can transport a high-priority prisoner: what appears to be a frail teenage girl named Ire. Dante begrudgingly plays along, leading Bartlett's men to the bridge while an incensed Percy and a cooperative Luc (a Special Ops vet herself) are confined to quarters.

Some kind of cosmic pulsating event thingie flares in space, hitting and temporarily shorting out the Tulip. Ire instantly sheds her cuffs and uses impressive martial arts to take out the two soldiers left to guard her. She then reaches towards a fallen soldier, her arm glowing blue when she touches his head, and says "Sorry."

By the time Bartlett and the rest of his troops reach the holding bay, she's gone, and he orders all his soldiers to converge. Percy notes the lack of guard at her door and she and Luc leave their confinement. On the holding deck, Pretrakist suddenly encounters Ire outside his cell, asking if the man is bad. He says yes. She tries reaching for his head, but there's an explosion of sparks that knock them both back. The cage lock springs free and Pretrakist celebrates his freedom and the "angel" who gave it to him. Ire instantly vanishes from sight, literally disappearing before his eyes. By the time Luc reaches the cell, he's gone.

Bartlett storms onto the bridge and demands all corridors be put on lockdown, but because only specific parts of the ship are active and habitable, those four main sections have to be locked down manually. Dante leads a soldier to one while Percy is escorted to another, but she still refuses to work with the Special Ops soldiers and eventually runs off.

Ire appears on the bridge, shorting out the navigation system and setting the ship on an unknown course at maximum speed, then disappears again. When a pair of soldiers follow the fleeing Percy into a ventilation shaft, Ire appears again, violently dispatching them both. When Bartlett peers into the vent, demanding to know what's going on, he's suddenly surrounded by glowing particles that whisper to him in Ire's voice. He flees, but they pursue and corner him, and he curls up, telling the cloud over and over again that he just follows orders.

The soldier with Dante is needlessly berating him. Ire appears, using her glowy arm to force the man to confront his sadism, and as soon as she vanishes, Pretrakist is there, killing the guard and, now armed, firing after the fleeing Dante. Dante gets away, but is then himself confronted by Ire. Her glowy arm determines he's good, which makes her smile, and he asks her to stop causing pain in others. "Are you sure? For I have enough pain to fuel the universe." She vanishes.

As our leads converge on the bridge, Caravaggio reveals their destination is Miranda, the ice moon of Uranus. Dante and Luc are finally able to arm themselves and set off after Pretrakist, leaving Percy to try to restore navigational control. She can't focus with everything going on, so goes for a walk. She runs into Ire, whose glowy arm shows Percy to be good... and she promptly passes out in Percy's arms. Percy drags her back to her quarters, where Caravaggio ponders why his diagnostics show no life readings of any kind from Ire. Ire briefly comes too, saying something about how she was sent to tell a story and how love is so much harder to understand than hate. Percy leaves Ire to rest, wandering the corridors and quickly becoming captured by Pretrakist.

Bartlett confronts Dante and Luc, revealing to them that they're headed for Phoenix, the fabled station which oversaw the quarantine of the Miranda colony following the devastating discovery of the Omega-17 virus. Several days ago, a craft left the Phoenix station, and Bartlett's team intercepted, discovering Ire who kept screaming and repeating the word "Earth." Their orders were to transport her to the Center for Disease Control, and the events of our episode picked up from there. Dante and Luc agree to help capture her, but when they find Percy in Pretrakist's clutches, he prioritizes his niece, and is knocked out by Bartlett, who forces Luc to keep searching for Ire.

They catch up with Ire at the airlock as the Tulip docks with Phoenix. Luc manages to break away as Bartlett, momentarily halted by the airlock, maintains his pursuit. Pretrakist then drags Percy to the airlock, where his standoff with Luc is joined by Dante, but the crook refuses to drop his leverage and flees to the station, Dante and Luc following after themselves clearing the lock.

Everyone wanders the long deserted station, looking for everyone else, and Caravaggio informs them that the moon is starting to deteriorate, giving them a ticking clock. Dante and Luc come across a computer terminal and access the logs, retrieving a video of the final days of the Omega-17 catastrophe. One thing it shows is the recorded death of Ire... from 40 years ago.

Bartlett confronts Ire, who tells them she's the virus, contained in the ice the colonists mined from Miranda. There was confusion and death before they could bond with our DNA and take the human form of Ire. "She" starts expanding into the cloud of glowing particles, but just before Bartlett can finish "her" off, he's plugged in the back by Pretrakist, who's finally reunited with his "angel". He enters the cloud of particles, vanishing as it flares with blinding power. Miranda itself is starting to rip into cracks of massive energy which engulf the icy body in flame, and our heroes bolt back to the Tulip and take off. Miranda goes ka-blooey.

Rudolpho calls, ripping into the crew for losing all their bounty, but Dante placates him with the now abandoned Special Ops shuttle they have in the docking bay, which not only settles all their bills, but scrapes then a little profit on top.


There's two very solid standalone stories in this week's episode.

In the first, we have escaped prisoner Pretrakist (Vincent Halter, with his magnificently French smolder and smirk), who's so charismatic and carefree with a gun in his hand that he not only blows away all his hostages, but plugs all the crooks who broke free with him just to piss on the amount of bounty Dante can collect. And then he breaks loose on board, quickly arming himself and creating all sorts of anarchist havoc, before getting his hands on Percy.

In the second, we have a Special Ops unit commandeer the Tulip to transport a high priority prisoner, which creates tension with Dante as to who's in charge of this ship, and tension with Luc as her own history with Special Forces gives her insight while it's simultaneously being used to obligate her into helping. The prisoner turns out to be highly unusual, escapes, and creates all sorts of havoc before leading everyone to a massive government cover-up.

Both of these plots are quite engrossing and exciting... the problem is they don't really gel together. The Special Ops storyline could have easily been its own episode, with further expansion of Luc's quandary and Percy's (recurring theme) bond with Ire to pad out the length. While the story of Pretrakist doesn't have much of a resolution on its own, he makes for a marvelous setup, and I'd rather they built somewhere for his story to go instead of just having him wander into this other one. Aside from prisoners being loose on board Tulip, these stories literally have nothing to do with one another, and the points at which they intersect do so little to actually affect anything as to make them feel meaningless. Especially at the end, where the conclusion is fully that of the Special Ops story, yet Pretrakist again just wanders into it and zap he's gone.

Other than that lack of harmony, I really like the episode. There's plenty of action and suspense as everyone is racing down corridors left and right, never knowing if bullets are going to come at them from escaped foes or the grunts who are supposed to be the bad guys. Neil Dickson does a great job as the high-strung commander of the unit (especially love his James Mason lisp), falling into increasing desperation to see his mission through, even as all his plans to do so are being thwarted. And then we get to the big twist of the episode, where it's revealed an entire colony, thousands of people, have been wiped out by yet another virus, and the government is trying to sweep it so far into the shadows that it's spoken of as a myth.

And this twist brings us right back to our comparison to Firefly, specifically the second half of the film Serenity, where we come across a desolate world where everyone is long dead, and they find a recording of a distressed individual explaining what's going down even as we hear the chaos of the cataclysm off screen. And the person who brings us to this place is River Tam Ire, a frail young woman who speaks random puzzles in a child-like voice before bursting into sudden bouts of extreme martial arts, taking down heavily armed guards with her bare limbs. Nazneen Contractor is no Summer Glau in the acting department, but the similarities between this episode and Serenity go far beyond any comparisons we've made in the past. I'm still willing to buy that it's coincidence... but it's one HELL of a coincidence. As to differences, her ability to suddenly disappear or to enter peoples' minds with physical contact increases her threat, and I really like the moments where she bonds with Percy. As to her being the memory of a person imbued on the now sentient virus, which clouds its particles together to create the form of her as a person (at least I think that's what happened?), that's going in an odd direction. Not necessarily a bad one, but certainly one I'm on the fence about.

Overall, it's a solid episode. Aside from the disconnect of the story threads, my only other problems are Percy being more of an ass than she needs to be (even by her standards), and Luc's thread of having to choose between the soldiers of her past and the allies of her present being significantly underdeveloped. Otherwise, I dig it. Even the random video of a pop punk rock singer, who we apparently will see again in future episodes.

But seriously, can we stop with the Rudulpho vids? They just aren't funny.


When Noel and I watch Starhunter, we try to watch it as if we're seeing it on TV for the first time. Usually, that's easy enough to do - put the DVD into a DVD player, pick the right episode, and, voilĂ , episode plays.

But when I set out to watch this episode, technology seemed to have conspired against me. The remote control for my old, hand-me-down DVD player stopped working, making it impossible for me to select episodes. And when I tried playing it on the computer, it stubbornly refused to play this episode's first fifteen minutes. Wiping the disk off got the audio to work... but not the video, and just when I was about to give up, I tried restarting Windows Media Player - and the episode played perfectly.

But before that happened, I'd already seen the rest of the episode (figuring that at least seeing part would be better than nothing). So I watched about three fourths, then then first quarter, then the rest of the episode again.

This is significant because, the way the episode is written, I think we're supposed to start off thinking that it's going to be about the crew dealing with a regular criminal. A criminal who's unhinged, but still well within the realm of the more down-to-earth science fiction plot of the show. So when the Special Forces bring in a prisoner with superhuman powers, the viewers are supposed to be caught off-guard as the episode suddenly shifts into a more supernatural story.

Normally, I would like this kind of thing, which pulls the rug out from under you and subverts expectations by switching to something else entirely. It doesn't always work well, but I usually appreciate the writers trying. But because I didn't start with the first fifteen minutes, I knew that episode was getting into more supernatural/alien territory from the get-go. So there was no surprise.

The way I saw the episode also undermines Pretrakist as a character. His introduction paints him as an unhinged, but effective, antagonist. He has a quick temper, but when he takes over the solar yacht, he only shoots people who are trying to threaten him. He took out the most likely opposition and intimidated the rich, pampered yacht passengers in the process. And disguising himself as a passenger before Dante and the crew board is a smart move. Granted, it would have been smarter if he stayed quiet and waited until Dante and Luc got off the yacht before revealing himself, but credit where credit is due for some good planning.

But I didn't see any of that when I first started watching the episode. I just saw a guy in a prison cell, babbling about angels like a cliched insane person.

And that got me thinking - when people originally saw Starhunter on TV, what happened if, for whatever reason, they missed the first part? The impression they'd get would be different from people who saw it from the beginning. It's the sort of thing we don't usually think too much about, but it underscores how any episode is truly a sum of its parts. Take one part out, and you change context for everything else.

And speaking of parts, I am inclined to agree with Noel in that this would have worked better as two episodes. One would be about Pretrakist messing with the Tulip's crew, and one would be about Special Forces escorting the alien virus girl, and all the mayhem that ensues. As it stands – as Noel rightfully said - Pretrakist winds up being kind of superfluous for most of the episode, and his role in the climax feels kind of tacked on.

You notice that I keep referring to the girl as the “alien virus”. Noel seem to have gotten the idea that she was a product of an experiment on the Phoenix station - and given that the episode sort of rushes through the explanation about her true nature, I don't really blame him for drawing that conclusion. But having seen the climax of the episode twice, here's what I think we were supposed to take away from that...

The Phoenix station is in orbit around Miranda – which, as a quick Wikipedia search will tell you, is a moon of Uranus made largely of ice. In order to make water, the scientists melted some of that ice and, in the process, released the sentient virus trapped inside. Like all viruses, it injected its RNA inside the nearest organism – but unlike your regular viruses, it absorbed human DNA and made it part of its genetic code. With the code came a flood of emotions it wasn't equipped to handle. Confused, it tried to get to Earth, somehow assuming human-like form in the process.

That, of course, still leaves tons of questions. Since when are viruses energy-based lifeforms? Why doesn't the alien virus girl show up on the scans? And why does absorbing Pretrakist make Miranda explode?

Seriously – what the hell hell was that about?

Aside from all the weirdness around the alien virus, this episode has two other plot elements that just confuse me. First, there's Dante treating Luc with the kind of hostility we haven't seen him treat her before. The fact that Rudulpho hired her to basically keep the crew in line is suddenly brought up, and Dante and Percy suddenly resent her for it... but shouldn't that have been brought up, like, five episodes ago? It's almost as if Luc was the character introduced the previous episode, where she was mean to the rest of the crew.

Then there's the fact that, after four episodes of trying to keep Percy on the Tulip and away from anything even remotely resembling danger, Dante is suddenly talking about how she should go out into the world and have a normal life. We have seen him loosening up a bit at the end of “Trust,” but not to this extent. And Percy, who should've been surprised by this change of attitude, reacts like it's a typically Dante thing to say.

And then there's all the Caravaggio abuse from Dante. Percy mocking/denigrating the AI is par for the course, a part of their ongoing bickering, but I've never seen Dante show any negative emotions towards Caravaggio before. If anything, he seems almost indifferent, treating him as a useful tool and nothing more.

Ultimately, it goes back to the whole “two stories that never quite gel” thing. Some shows have been able to pull off the genre/plot shift well, but this isn't one. I think the writers would have been better off splitting it into two episodes. Maybe that way, they'd be able to explain the plot and better keep the continuity consistent.

A few closing notes:
  • As far as Firefly/Serenity similarities - while the alien virus girl's origins aren't quite Serenity-esque, there are still some similarities that are really, really making me wonder about Joss Whedon. A girl with superhuman abilities who bonds with the ship's engineer and takes the crew to an interstellar object named Miranda? A video message from the head of the facility where we see the threat as it breaks into the room? That's a bit too on the nose.
  • I don't mind Rudulpho's videos as much as Noel does, to be honest. They don't really contribute anything to the story, and I wouldn't mind if they weren't there, but there's something about Stephen Marcus' performance that makes them weirdly compelling. At least compelling enough to not make me feel like they're a complete waste of time

We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "The Man Who Sold the World".

1 comment:

NoelCT said...

Yeah, there was so much going on during the final stage of the episode that, until my second viewing for the synopsis, I did get a little lost in all the exposition being thrown around. I picked up on the girl being a sentient virus disguised as a girl instead of an actual girl, but it being a virus dug up in Miranda's ice flew past me. And, wow, completely missed the mention of Miranda in my comparisons to Firefly/Serenity. That really is the icing on the cake of suspicion. But I won't lay all my inquiry on Whedon as other people were also involved in the development of the show. If there was some ripping off being done, it could have slipped in under his nose during story pitch meetings. Either way, this has gone from a series amusingly similar to Firefly to something of a much more questionable and intriguing comparison.

About the behavior of the crew, I didn't get that Dante was berating Luc so much as she was really digging into him, and he was passive-aggressively batting back with little success. And the only time I caught him being mean to Caravaggio was at the end, and that was done as a humorous aside. As for wanting Percy to go away, Dante was at a very depressed and despondent point at that moment and was just babbling random thoughts out loud. He wasn't actually pushing her, and to her credit, she saw it for what it was and didn't give.

And about the structure of the episode, I do quite like the idea of a mundane, formulaic mission being upset halfway through by something far bigger. While I think this was, overall, a better executed episode than "Family Values", I think that story made better use of this conceit and worked because Etienne was a small-time hood with no broader menace to his story, whereas Pretrakist (gah, with these complicated names!) is far more compelling and almost demands a story of his own.

And I don't think him "entering" Ire had anything to do with Miranda exploding, as it was already in the process of doing so (you may have missed Caravaggio's message to Luc about the moon's instability, which I didn't catch until the synopsis viewing). He just stepped in as it reached its final sequence. Though that doesn't explain why Ire destroys herself, aka her entire species, instead of either returning to the ice or sailing off into the cosmos like Eccleston did.