June 22, 2013

Starhunter, episode 10 "Cell Game"

In an opening video, Rudolpho rants about how hard it is to find a good bounty hunter, how many people sign up without a clear understanding of what it takes, and how it's the best training ground to learn human nature.

Transferring a prisoner to a station in orbit around Oberon, a moon of Uranus, Dante, Luc, and Percy are confronted by Rex and Maks, a husband-and-wife pair of bounty hunters with a history of poaching already captured bounties. There's a tense standoff over the prisoner, during which Dante tells Percy to return to the ship, but she instead sneaks back and plugs Maks with a stun round. Our heroes have the upper hand, but then the authorities arrive, and instead of arresting Rex and Maks, the ruling local militia reveals the two have recently signed on as members, and Percy is taken into custody for assault, which has an automatic sentence of five years.

Luc drags their prisoner back to the ship, where Caravaggio tells them there are no courts on Oberon and all sentences passed by arresting officers are final. Dante gathers up all the credits he can and scours the station for an official he can bribe or a way he can speak to Percy, but Rex has cut him off from every angle. She eventually tells Dante she needs him to break her brother, Goran, out of a brutal penal colony on Nereid (a moon of Neptune), and she's holding Percy as leverage.

Percy is locked in a cell with two beds, both have which have already been filled by Joy and Erica, the latter of whom has a horrid burn from the cell's forcefield, and who's regularly raped by one of the guards. The young women all test one another as Percy settles in, Rex showing up soon to reveal she plans to further profit by selling Percy as a sex slave.

After a few days of tension, Erica and Joy decide to "initiate" their new cellmate by giving her a forcefield burn, only stopping their attack when Percy reveals she's worked out a way to escape their cell. Getting a music unit from another prisoner, she rewires it to tap into the cell's locking system and deactivate the forcefield. They still have to deal with motion detectors in the outer hall, and when those are triggered, Erica is gunned down, which Joy blames Percy for when they're locked back up together.

Nereid is known at the harshest prison system in known space, and all prior attempts at an escape have failed. Because the prison computer system is outdated and not connected to the interplanetary network, it's decided to sneak Dante in as a captive alongside their existing Prisoner (who's never named and is listed in the credits only as Prisoner, so I'll be distinguishing him with the capital "P"). The lead guard has his suspicions, but eventually lets Dante in, sending him to X Ward for being cheeky.

X Ward is a constant boil of violence and alpha dog tactics. Prisoner is meek and quickly pounced on, and when Dante steps in, even he's overwhelmed by attackers. The towering Goran suddenly plows in, slamming everyone down and establishing order.

When Dante comes too, Goran offers to sell him protection, and Dante counteroffers to let Goran in on an escape. Goran laughs him down, but when Prisoner threatens to rat on Dante to the guards, Goran shanks the man and says he's in. The next morning, Luc arrives, claiming her prisoner (Dante) has a nasty case of hepatitis and needs to be transferred to a quarantine facility. After working through guards, the leader of which she has to pay off, she gets Dante cuffed, and as they're leaving, Goran claims he shared a needle with Dante and has been exposed. Luc eventually works a deal with the guards to take Goran, too, and they're out and on their way back to Oberon.

Rex and Dante have their standoff where they exchange prisoners, but the militia guards shows up and level their guns at Dante. Rex's smile fades as the guns are suddenly turned to her and her clan, Dante revealing he's told the militia about the millions in credits worth of loot Rex's family has from the murders her brother went to prison for.

Our heroes sail off, Percy suddenly having a new appreciation for the food on board following the meals she had in prison.


Well... that was unexpected.

In a good way.

Prison episodes are one of the major recurring staples of science fiction television. I would even say it's practically a mandatory plot element. Can you think of any sci-fi show where heroes don't wind up imprisoned for some reason or another? I can't. There is Three Moons Over Milford, but it was cancelled faster then Firefly and I'm not sure it even counts.

The thing is, there's a reason why writers like prison episodes. They put heroes at a disadvantage, forcing them to work with characters they wouldn't otherwise work with, contemplate moral compromises, and take risks. And while we all know that heroes won't die, we know that heroes can be hurt - physically and/or psychologically. That creates tension.

And it works pretty well in this episode. When Percy is trying to disable the field and avoid the motion detectors, I was on the edge of my seat. Especially at the last moment, as the rules of drama tells us this is when things are much more likely to go wrong (and they do). The fact that we get to see what would happen if a forcefield isn't disabled helps raise the stakes. And while most of Dante's imprisonment is pretty by-the-numbers (sneak into prison undercover, befriend a guy you're supposed to break out of prison, get beat up somewhere along the way), the scene where Luc is trying to get Dante and Goran out of Nereid prison is pretty suspenseful because there are several moments where it looks like the plan will fall apart. And the in the final scene, I did wonder if Dante had a contingency plan for the the not-entirely-obvious-but-still-not-exactly-surprising trap Rex springs.

I also like the characterization in this episode. It's one of the few cases where Percy's tendency to under-react is actually useful. While it's clear that she's scared of being imprisoned (and of getting caught escaping), she keeps her priorities straight and doesn't lose focus. In this episode, we've seen Percy be proactive in a pretty ruthless way - shooting a bounty hunter with a knock-out round to end a stand-off, using a cellmate as a human shield during the failed escape attempt, and beating the remaining cellmate just enough to make sure she isn't a threat. Percy doesn't relish the fact that somebody got killed, but this was one of the people who was going to burn her face out of sheer spite, so I can see why she isn't too broken up over it.

Dante's characterization in this episode is interesting. Getting into prison requires him to play someone who isn't supposed to be likable - a murderer. And, for once, Dante's chronic lack of charisma actually works for him, as he seems kind of plausible in the role. Not completely plausible, mind you - he's still too nice to quite pull-off the "cold-blooded killer" thing - but it's amazing how much more likable the character becomes when I expect him to be unlikable.

Generally speaking, the episode has a lot of good moments going for it. Dante and Luc's plan to get Goran out is legitimately creative and unexpected. Dante beating bribery on Oberon with more bribery is hilariously fitting. I like that the notion of law enforcement being corrupt gets brought up again after several episodes, and it once again raises questions about how exactly the government works in the Solar System. While Rex is pretty unlikable throughout the episode, the fact that she gleefully watches Dante getting tormented by an obtuse prison computer is a nice touch. So is the part where a woman asks for Dante's protection because he seems like someone least likely to rape her. Moments like this help establish characterization and flesh out the world in a way that isn't too forced.

And, personally, I find the scenes where Luc plays a "bored and corrupt" bounty hunter so as to coax an actually bored and corrupt prison warden into giving her what she wants to be compelling because it reminds me of Motherland. Growing up in post-Soviet Russia, where police corruption was a norm (it still is - just to lesser extent), this was all too familiar.

(I never had to deal with Russian militsya personally, but I had friends and relatives who did. And then there was my experience with Russian Army Draft Board - but that's a story for another blog.)

Overall, I liked the episode far more then I expected. In fact, I would say that this was my favorite episode of Starhunter so far.

Let's hope we'll see more of this down the line.


On paper, this is one of the strongest episodes of the show yet. Instead of a "bounty-of-the-week" plot, we finally have our heroes slamming into the wall of rival bounty hunters who have teamed up with a corrupt militia force orbiting the distant reaches of Uranus (where it's not quite as deserted as what we've seen on Pluto, but still enough out of the way to escape the influence of ruling bodies closer to our homeworld). This breaks our lead Montanas up, forcing them both to go into equally brutal prison systems, and then challenges them to do whatever it'll take to survive and reunite. There are some genuinely tense moments in this episode (don't know that the rape scene was necessary, but wow), and great moments where our heroes come up with ways to defy the odds and push through it.

In execution, this episode is a mess.

The acting is probably the biggest part of it. This is one of the most crowded episodes we've seen so far in terms of cast, but the majority of the acting is heavily amateurish in nature, with poor line delivery and awkward body language killing much of the drama and even getting a few laughs from me. The two girls Percy is locked up with have no other IMDB credits to their names, and I'm not surprised. Nor are any of the other guards or prisoners any better. I'm surprised to see Tina Malone has become quite a popular television actress in the UK, with a long stint on Shameless and a season of Celebrity Big Brother thrusting her into the tabloid spotlight, because her performance as rival bounty hunter Rex doesn't strike me as any better than the actors surrounding her. I get the skeevy Mama Fratelli maliciousness she's going for, but it's not selling at all. The only good member of the guest cast - which isn't saying much, but I still enjoy him - is Pat Roach as Rex's brother Goran. Roach has a long history playing towering thugs in films (fighting Indiana Jones in not one, but two installments of that series) and he brings a strong physicality and presence here, and even gets out some good lines through his grinning, lion-like face.

On the flip side of the coin, the main cast is pretty solid. Pare still has his dull moments, but dives into things nicely with great bits like him desperately trying to find a politician to bribe to free Percy, or having to fight for his place within the pecking order in lockup. Some of Tanya Allen's deadpan delivery is a little flatter than usual, mostly because of the awful actors she's stuck playing off of, but Percy is mostly awesome as she has to get past her frustration at being cheated into an awful environment and using her engineering genius to figure out how to unlock said environment to her advantage. She's also forced to do some brutal stuff to her cellmates along the way, and Allen perfectly balances Percy's willingness to go there with her disgust that it became necessary. Claudette Roche is, as always, fantastic, with Luc being the outside member of the crew trying to keep the two Montanas from getting killed and swallowed up by the system. There's so much pent up frustration and anger being held inside as she sorts everything out and plays her part in the scam, and the scenes where she's conning the corrupt head guard are great. Even Caravaggio gets a wonderful moment when he keeps asking what happened to Percy, increasingly insistent because nobody will tell him.

This episode has a great script, with solid plotting and character work, and the lead cast certainly rises to the occasion. Sadly, they're not just let down by the guest performers, as the direction itself feels really lazy and scattered, choppily cutting at bad times or lingering in ways that leave the snappy plot feeling dull. None of the drama and tension of the story is embellished by the filmmaking. There's no energy, no constant feeling of the ticking clock and web of a system our heroes are racing against. There's great stuff in the script, but as presented through the direction and performances we get here, it's just a collection of stuff that happens with no flow, no style, no skill.

This is an episode I really really want to like, but it's ultimately such a dull, slapped together piece of cheap entertainment packed to the brim with poor acting, and it so consistently strangles any potential this episode has that I ultimately can't recommend it as one of the good ones. "A+" for effort, "D+" for execution.

Extra thoughts:
  • I think it's a bit of forced plotting for Dante to refuse to call Rudolpho for help because he thinks it's a possibility the other man could be involved with this setup. Why? I mean, we know Rudolpho has had a hand in the cases which lead our heroes to Orchard interests, but our heroes don't. And Rudolpho is often outspoken in his hate of corrupt bounty hunters, so I don't see what he'd have to gain by suddenly working with Rex. It would be more believable to just call him and have him say he doesn't have any influence that deep into the solar system.
  • Wish I'd kept a tally, because I believe this is our fourth or fifth reference to Billy Tsunami.
  • Why would they slip Dante into prison by using his real name? I can understand full background checks not being much of an issue where they are, but they screwed over some people who are going to want to find them, so congratulations on leaving a trail for them to follow
  • In the last episode, I was wondering how Jacob was still alive after Percy put a bullet in his back, and here they clearly establish they have "stun rounds".
  • The CG shots of the space station are fantastic. Some of the best the series has done yet.

We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "Black Light".

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

Wait, where's the corrupt redneck warden and the shower scene with Sybil Danning and Shannon Tweed?