Rudolpho opens with a video, where he opines about love, lust, deceit, and other afflictions of the heart as he sets out on a vacation where he hopes to get laid.
Our heroes are short on supplies, with Percy complaining about the quality of the mush they're stuck eating. Caravaggio counters her by mentioning the schooling she's skipped out on, so Dante orders her to learn. Rudolpho calls, sending the team to Pluto to retrieve war criminal Dr. Novak - aka "The Butcher of Callisto", a main player in government led genetic experiments on thousands of victims in a quest to further human evolution, which led to a massive civil war on the moon Callisto - where he's been mining and dealing iridium under the name Kayvon. Rudolpho warns them that Novak's identity has already leaked and a brutal mess of a hunter they all know named Chorsky may already have beat them there.
Cut to Pluto, where Chorsky has Kayvon at gunpoint, ordering him to take a pocket DNA test. Kayvon politely delays the hunter long enough for the man to be gunned down by Kayvon's lovely lethal lover, Belle.
In her quarters, Luc watches a video about Novak and the atrocities on Callisto, making a mental note of similarities between his goal of unlocking hidden genetic sequences with the mission from her father to uncover information about the Divinity Cluster. She heads to the bridge as the Tulip approaches Pluto, revealing the mines which are housed under electromagnetic domes that create small pockets of atmosphere on the non-terraformed planet. Caravaggio notes that his sensors are detecting a cosmic anomaly, a massive electromagnetic field which apparently passes through this section of space every few thousand years. Luc pushes the others to go ahead with the mission in the hopes they'll be done by the time the fields collide, and Dante calls the surface, claiming to be a buyer in search of titanium, which gets a slimy businessman welcome from Kayvon.
As Dante and Luc head to the surface, she reveals that one of her first tours of duty as a Ranger was taking part in the liberation of a concentration camp run by Novak, where she saw all of his horror first-hand. On the surface, Belle has figured out who their guests are, so Kayvon calls up Billy Ray, a crazy and viral AI, who beams up to the Tulip, creates general havoc that runs Percy ragged (not to mention, interrupts her schooling - which just happens to be about the Callisto war), and traps Caravaggio into a tiny pocket computer. Back on the surface, Belle talks Kayvon into finally running off for an extended vacation and starts putting plans in place for a quiet spot on the dark side of the Moon.
Dante and Luc land, where they're greeted by Rusty, a crusty mining foreman with a huge gun. Which Dante promptly shoots out of his hands as the hunters move on. Their next foil is Belle, waiting on the other side of the airlock with a gun in hand, but they get the drop on her and leave her cuffed in the hallway. They come face-to-face with Kayvon and he begrudgingly takes their DNA test... only for it to turn up negative. Despite this, he vaguely mentions once being on Callisto, where he searched for something "divine", which perks Luc's ears as she thinks about the Cluster. Since Novak was noted for his ability to rewrite DNA, Dante decides to take Kayvon up to their ship for a more thorough genetic evaluation can be performed. Kayvon refuses, but is dragged along in cuffs at gunpoint, quietly teasing Luc with the phrase, "The Cluster lives."
Just before they reach the shuttle, they're pinned down by gunfire from Rusty and Belle. Rusty's plugged and Kayvon takes a bullet to the shoulder after trying to get the jump on Luc. He promises to tell her anything she wants to know if she'll get him back to his office, so Luc tells Dante to trust her as she escorts Kayvon back. Belle tries to interfere, but Kayvon pushes her away, angrily breaking up with her. In her anger, Bell keeps Dante pinned down until he talks her into surrendering.
In his office, Kayvon reveals to Luc that he is Dr. Novak, and he was just starting to unlock the powers of the Divinity Cluster when the war forced him to flee. They're interrupted by Dante and Belle. Dante wants to know what the hell is going on, and Belle confronts Novak, finally realizing the monster he is, and shoots both him and herself. With the anomaly bearing down on the planet, Dante and Luc have no time to linger and flee.
On the Tulip, Billy Ray has drifted the ship straight into the anomaly, which is rocking the ship apart. Percy finally restores Caravaggio's anti-virus software, allowing him to delete Billy Ray and regain control of the ship. They use the planet's gravity to slingshot them out of the field, then barely manage to pick up Dante and Luc's shuttle.
While she starts on the first of many repairs, Percy has a voiceover about how she hates people because her Uncle's work has shown her the evil everyone has in their hearts. While staring out at the stars, Dante has a voiceover about how there's so much garbage out there that he wonders if he's ever making a difference, but how he'll keep trying to make the future a better place for both his son and niece. He finds Luc in her quarters and tells her Rudolpho is willing to pay twice as much for a dead Novak as he is a live one. He then asks her again what she was doing with Novak. She makes up an excuse and he leaves, visibly aware it's made up. Luc wraps us up with a voiceover about how some questions don't have easy answers, and asks "Do the ends justify the means? No matter what?"
This episode marks the first time the Divinity Cluster metaplot, introduced in the eponymous episode, moves forward. The Cluster itself is mentioned by name, and we see that the Orchard aren’t the only ones who are aware of it, nor are they the only ones who ever tried to utilize it. And, for the first but most likely not the last time in the series, Luc nearly derails a mission to fulfill the Orchard’s orders to get some information on the cluster from Novak. So far, she’s managed to keep Dante in the dark, but one wonders how long this can go on. Dante can be passive, and he’s shown little interest in the supernatural aspects of the show, but he’s not completely blind (except in “Peer Pressure,” but we’re not going to hold that against him).
Speaking of Novak... the Doctor Mengele-type character is a common enough science fiction trope – a scientist who committed atrocities for the sake of scientific accomplishment, fled before he could be captured for his crimes and went into hiding - and it’s the sort of character that’s very easy to turn into a caricature, but I think Michael Halsey struck an interesting balance. He portrays Novak as a man who thinks he did what he did for the right reasons, but he also realizes that his actions were monstrous and doesn’t particularly sugarcoat it. This is the man who is as sure of his own righteousness as much as he is of his own sins. That makes Novak one of the more compelling villains on the show.
The same can’t be said about his wife, who almost comes off as a 50s stereotype - a hysterical creature fixated on superficial things, who falls apart when she thinks a man doesn’t love her. And his AI, Billy Ray, is there to cause trouble on the Tulip, but doesn’t have much to offer beyond that. I did enjoy his interactions with Percy - she treats him as a nuisance instead of a scary threat - but I wish they did more with that. Have him respond to Percy’s annoyance more, take it more personally then he does, really have him try to hurt her. It certainly would have given him more personality.
Also, I can’t help but wonder at the thought process behind Billy Ray’s personality. He uses 50s-ish slang and references, but looks like a late 90s teen idol. Did somebody screw up the design? Or is it done deliberately to show that, by the 23rd century, 20th century culture started blurring together in the popular imagination? I prefer to think the later, but who knows.
And then there's Dante, ostensibly our main protagonist. It’s something I’ve talked about since my very first Starhunter entry - the man’s unrelenting lack of charisma, and the fact he can’t seem to muster much emotion (or, at least, much emotion that feels genuine and heartfelt) unless:
a. It has something to do with Percy.
b. It has something to do with Travis.
c. It has something to do with any friends from his life before the Raiders’ attack.
Noel has said in that past that Dante isn’t much of an action hero type. But the more I watch Starhunter, the more it becomes a problem. As I mentioned in my first entry, every show needs a character the audience can grab onto, someone they want to follow. And unless we get a Travis-related episode, Dante isn’t it.
I’m reminded of another series about a crew of bounty hunters bouncing around the Solar System, each character with a secret and/or a mission: Cowboy Bebop. The show’s primary protagonist, Spike Spiegel, spends much of the show waiting for something to happen and not showing strong emotions. But there's something Spike has but Dante doesn’t that makes him compelling even when he isn't being particularly pro-active or heroic.
Like I said in my first post, charisma is an elusive creature.
I think Dante would work a lot better as a supporting character, a second-in-command for a more charismatic lead. Without him being at the center of the show, the lack of charisma isn’t as pronounced - or as important.
As it is... If we don’t have Dante as a strong, charismatic center, who do the viewers latch onto? Percy? Her boredom-infused cynicism would make her even less compelling than Dante. Caravaggio? His sarcasm and bickering with Percy makes him an entertaining character, but he’s not a strong enough character to be in the spotlight. Luc might actually be a possibility - a strong, driven personality with issues and secrets - but while she is pretty good at adjusting to circumstances and thinking on her feet, we’ve never seen her take the initiative or step into a leadership position of any kind.
I’m starting to wonder if this is why the second season of Starhunter goes with a different lead - maybe they were trying to find that charismatic center.
One thing I am curious about is how the events of the episode fit into the greater Divinity Cluster plotline. The titular episode established that Eccelston discovered the alien genes, but it’s now clear that Novak discovered it decades earlier. Given that Callisto ethnic cleansings were a huge deal in the Starhunter-verse, surely somebody must have stumbled upon the purpose of Novak’s research. Did Eccelston discover the cluster independently, or did he get the idea from Novak’s research?
And I still have to wonder if the Miranda virus fits into the Divinity Cluster plot somehow. All the energy the alien virus girl was throwing around, the way Eccelston’s abilities manifested... maybe the Miranda virus were the aliens who created the Divinity Cluster. Maybe, two million years ago, some other alien race freed them from Miranda’s ice, and the virus combined with their DNA... Heck, maybe the Divinity Cluster was their attempt to infect humans two million years ago, and it didn’t work out like they intended...
It’s a bit out there, but at this point in the show, the Divinity Cluster mystery hasn’t been developed all that much yet. There's no better time to introduce completely wild theories.
Speaking of overarching theories... if the show is going to have an arc, it really needs to be subtler about it. I figured out pretty early on that Novak’s work would have something to do with the Divinity Cluster, but then the episode has to hammer the bloody point in with flashbacks, over and bloody over again. I get that some viewers may be slower to catch on to contextual clues then others, but this is really insulting everyone’s intelligence.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the actual plot and, honestly, there isn’t a lot to say. It’s pretty by-the-numbers, hitting a lot of notes we’ve seen before. Percy fighting off an invader? Been there. Tulip facing a cosmic anomaly? Done that. A villain with a loyal henchwoman type person? Definitely done that. There's never a point where I was really surprised, or anything came completely unexpected. The fact that Novak modified his DNA is a surprise, but that revelation winds up playing such a small role in the overall plot that it could have easily been dispensed with altogether.
In the end, I would say this is an average episode, enlivened somewhat by a villain who's more interesting than average and has connections to one of the overarching plotlines. But that’s it.
A few observations about setting:
- The episode answers one question that's kept bugging me - just how fast is space travel in the Starhunter-verse? Because the show takes place entirely within the solar system, there isn’t any pressing need to find a way to overcome the universal speed limit that is the speed of light. But the Tulip is clearly traveling faster than anything modern spacecraft are capable of (otherwise it wouldn’t be able to jet between Mars and Mercury in a few hours). Well, according to the episode, Tulip is capable of traveling at up to 93% light speed, which means that it can travel between Earth and Pluto in approximately six hours, if necessary. Which is a decent speed to go with, actually - long enough to make the trip not seem so trivial, but no so long that it slows down the plot. And since the show seems to suggest that the Tulip usually travels slower, the distances between other planets/moons can be longer as the plot demands.
- The Callisto civil war was about un-enhanced people vs. people with cybernetic and genetic enhancements. Yet we’ve never actually seen cyborgs or genetically enhanced humans (Eccelston and his henchwenches non-withstanding). The fact Callisto fought a civil war over the enhancements implies that there were enough enhanced individuals to form a sizable - and growing - minority. Or is it just that Callisto attracted enhanced individuals for some reason?
- Another interesting footnote - during Percy’s history lesson, we hear that Mars and other planets sent in troops to stop the massacres. This, once again, raises interesting questions about how the Solar System government works, and how much power does each planet/moon have.
Boy, it's gonna be tough coming up with things to say, because Igor absolutely nailed it this week, and I'm pretty much entirely in agreement with his assessment. This episode sets up a really interesting plot hearkening back to "Nazi" war criminals who fled a collapsing war, and continue to live and prosper in hiding. We get the past of genetic modification vs cybernetic modification. We get whispers about the Divinity Cluster. We get backstory for Luc as she was one of the Rangers who liberated a concentration camp from the brutal experiments of Novak, the "Butcher of Callisto". All of this is interesting stuff and juicy material for a sweeping and tense thriller of an episode...
Sadly, that's not quite what we get. Luc gets neither revenge nor more information about the Cluster. Novak suggests a ton of plot threads that are never really resolved, and the menace he initially exudes flitters away as he does nothing to thwart the heroes but clutch Luc (who, seriously, can't get out of a choke-hold with all of her Ranger training - no boot to the arch of his foot, elbow to his gut, or fist to his scrotum?), and instead relies on a small group of henchmen who largely prove incompetent. And as Igor pointed out, the episode is chuck full of flashbacks and padding, recapping events from past episodes in far more detail than needed, recapping events from this episode which we saw less than five minutes earlier, video after video after video of the atrocities of Callisto when we've already gotten the point and now it's just becoming aggravating, and ending the show with not one, not two, but three pondering voiceovers as our lead trio each ponder lessons vaguely relating to what they've just been through. Hell, even Rudolpho's opening video rambles on for a whopping two-and-a-half minutes. It's like this episode came up short and they had to draw it out with as much stuff as they could squeeze in, but all they did was take a mediocre episode and drag it down to sub-par by completely screwing up the pace as things constantly grind to a halt so we can take more time lingering on things that have already been sufficiently explored.
It's just really damn frustrating, and for an episode that seems to tie into a broader arc, it does jack all to actually forward that arc. I think Igor is stretching it a little by tying Miranda into things (granted, that was 40 years in the past, so the virus could have played some part in the time between), but he does raise the interesting issue of how Novak could have searched for and partially discovered what he refers to as the Divinity Cluster, when Eccleston was supposedly the geneticist who discovered and named it such on his own. Eccleston will be appearing again down the road, so maybe this'll be resolved, as the idea of him working off notes obtained from the camps (in the same way American scientists took advantage of "research" experiments performed by the Nazis) is certainly plausible. I also wonder if this'll tie into the Raiders at all, as we know they were themselves the victims of human experimentation by the ruling government, which lead to an influenza outbreak that killed millions of people (unrelated to Miranda?). However you connect the dots this early in the game, there's certainly a lot going on in the broader scheme of things.
As for Dante, I think it's a bit of a misnomer to classify him as the lead. In some ways, he is the anchor of the show, but it is an ensemble piece. He, Luc, and Percy are all joint leads, none more important than the others. I think, though, Igor is right in that Dante is failing to hold up his end of the triumvirate, as his passiveness keep bringing everything down and calls into question why he's even doing what he's doing if he cares so little for it. If we want to be realistic about him as a character, he's a guy who should keep flying into and accepting jobs only in territories controlled by the Raiders, because by increasing how often he encounters them, he increases his chances of finding his son. But he doesn't do that. The one and only time he's encountered the Raiders was entirely by accident, and he otherwise just drifts around from planet to planet, job to job. The premise of the show has given Dante a goal, but he isn't doing anything to actively pursue it, meaning on top of being a mediocre bounty hunter (how many times has he had his ass handed to him while on his own?), he's kind of a crappy dad. The dude is a loser and, yeah, I'm curious to see if this is something Season 2 fixes by giving him the boot in favor of a new captain.
As for Percy, I think it say a lot that she actually is the character audiences attached to, as I see she's the most discussed in message boards and is the only member of the main cast they brought back for Season 2. Yeah, she's cynical, but playfully, and in a way most young viewers can relate to. She kinda loves her job and is awesome at it, but her problem is that she wants to have a life outside of her job. She wants to have fun and hang out with people her own age, but all she gets are chores, homework, and murderous scum invading the corridors of the boat she's holding together and constantly modifying. I don't think Percy is intended to be the most popular person on the ship, but she's definitely the entry figure for younger viewers to attach to, as I most certainly did when I first caught the show in my teens. Luc is awesome and capable, but she's not particularly likeable. Dante is... Dante. Caravaggio is just the comedic sidekick. Thus, Percy is always the one I'm most interested to see each week.
And here, the plot of her taking on the evil AI virus, Billy Ray, is the storyline that keeps me the most involved... which says a lot given just how much weight and importance the A-plot fails to actually pull off. Granted, there isn't much to this plot - the flat hologram effects look silly as the two AIs are chasing one another down corridors, the defeat of Billy Ray feels very anticlimactic when I was expecting a "duel of the wills" between he and a hacking Percy, and as Igor mentioned, Percy is pretty passive about the whole thing and Billy Ray never ups his threat beyond general mischief. And yet, it's still more interesting to watch than the other story. Even Billy Ray's goofy appearance and jokes fit the character well enough to work instead of just being annoying.
Overall, yeah, this is not one of the better episodes out of what's largely been a mediocre series. And that's saying something given the promise offered by a lot of the setup here, but we just don't get enough of anything resembling a resolution to make it worth while, and the ride to get there is padded out and uninvolving.
Some extra thoughts:
- I totally missed the bit where they establish the speed, Igor, so good catch. And, yeah, it makes sense that - like in Firefly - while the ship is capable of traveling at a high rate of speed, that's something they only use on occasion and otherwise trottle along at cruising speeds. If I remember, wasn't there a moment in "The Divinity Cluster" where Eccleston surprised everyone by manipulating the speed of the ship so it went from the Moon to Earth in less than a minute? I remember Luc especially having a surprised reaction, and believe the word "hyperspace" was used.
- Being one of only three people living under a massively visible dome on Pluto and running a prime mining operation doesn't exactly make for the most discreet of hiding places for a famed war criminal, does it? And why is so little of Pluto being taken advantage of for such a limited mining operation? And if there's only three people on the planet, who works the mines? And why are they never aware of the massive electromagnetic space anomaly that might perhaps effect their electromagnetic shields? And why is Dante so weirdly obsessed with asking about the electromagnetic shields, but doesn't put 2 + 2 together until the end that "Duh, electromagnetic anomaly running into an electromagnetic shield might be bad!"
- For yet another missed opportunity, I love how Dante, Luc, and Rudolpho talk about another bounty hunter who's already beaten them to the planet - a brutal thug who often leaves behind him messes that better hunters have to clean up - but instead of actually doing anything with the character, like contrasting his tactics against those of our heroes despite their shared profession, we see him in one scene where he's shot in the back. And, wow, the actor playing him is especially awful.
We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "Frozen".