June 29, 2013

Starhunter, episode 11 "Black Light"

We open on a video of Rudolpho, with a moll on his lap, talking about how people (including the Raiders) keep grasping for immortality through their children, but he intends to remain childless as all he cares about is the here and now.

Dante and Percy grin in laid-back amusement as Luc shows them some card tricks before dealing out a round of poker to see who gets stuck with kitchen duty. Percy wins. Rudolpho calls, congratulating them on their latest bounty: Electra, a young, female, arms-dealing Raider. Percy head down to holding to feed their prisoner, but Electra kicks the food away.

Deep in an unexplored level of the Tulip, we find a trio of cryogenic chambers housing men in old military uniforms. A control panel shorts out, opening the chamber of Colonel E.W. Bramwell, who barely has time to get his bearings before the ship's original crude A.I. shorts out and he learns the two remaining soldiers are dead. Bramwell arms himself and sets out for the bridge.

Caravaggio informs Dante that Raider ships are on the furthest fringe of the scanners, but aren't approaching. Dante tries to see if Electra knows anything about this, but she just teases his search for his son and says her adoption by the Raiders was an honor.

A surprised Caravaggio informs Dante an intruder is on board, and as he gets to the bridge to find Luc, both are suddenly held at gunpoint by Bramwell, who claims this ship is under his command and demands to know why they're on board. During shouted arguments and general distrust, we learn Bramwell has been on ice for 50 years, and that his mission was to liberate Mars during a past war with the Raiders, who have since been driven to the outer edge of the system. His mission also included a weapon called "Black Light". Getting nowhere in the trust department, Bramwell has Dante and Luc lead him to the brig, where he locks them in Electra's cell. Elsewhere, Caravaggio wakes up Percy and she starts looking into where the cryogenics system is.

As Luc and Dante let themselves out of the cell, Electra suddenly remembers Bramwell's name, as the leader of an old, hard-fought campaign he lost, before the Raiders were eventually kicked off of Mars. As he wanders the halls, Bramwell loses focus as the full weight of his situation hits him. He's even more deflated when he encounters Percy and Caravaggio on the bridge, as in their attempt to cheer him up, they instead reveal a post-mortem snub in how he was honored. He wanders again, heading to the shuttle bay, but instead of flying away, he puts his gun to his head. Dante and Luc interrupt him, talking him down and taking his weapon. Bramwell is fully breaking down, pulling out a photo of his son, who died in the failed assault he commanded. Luc brings him down to the brig until they can figure out what to do with him.

Dante takes another look at the nearby Raider trajectories, and realizes it shows dozens of ships, all converging on a single point. He realizes this is one of their fabled Gatherings, which only happens once every four years. He has Caravaggio alter their course to this point, but keeps the info locked from Percy, whom he accompanies to the cryogenics room. There they find the dead guys and the fried console, but Percy turns it into prodding her uncle about their destination.

In the brig, Electra confronts Bramwell, telling him the battle he lost was still so strategically impressive that the Raiders have come to respect him as a hero and continue studying his tactics in battle simulators. Dante comes, wanting to make a deal with Electra, promising to bring her home. Problem is, her parents were deadbeats, so all her loyalties are to the Raiders. Dante then reveals he's found the location of the Gathering, and offers Electra her freedom in exchange for helping him find Travis, who's sure to be there. Once they're alone again, Electra comes on to Bramwell, saying there are many Raider women who would be honored to bear his child. He's not entirely interested. Dante comes in again, escorting the Col. from lockup to guest quarters.

Bramwell returns to the cryogenics room, saying a proper farewell to his men. Then checks to make sure a secret compartment is still secure. On the bridge, Luc and Percy are very much less than enthused when they learn about Dante's destination. Bramwell enters, supporting Dante's plan, but offering to go in alone as he feels his fame will aid in the search for Travis. Dante refuses to stay behind, and says he'll use Bramwell's fame as a distraction to slip away and search.

So they put Dante in one of the dead soldier's uniform and stage the bridge to look like Electra captured the crew after she was taken on board. Electra calls the Raider security perimeter. They find her reasons for being on board the Tulip, not to mention the bombshell of Bramwell's presence, more than a little hard to swallow, but clear the ship to dock at a staging area until it can be investigated.

Swarms of Raider vessels are docked for the Gathering, which is being held on a hastily constructed collection of corridors and chambers from old space stations. The Tulip is guided in by armed escort.

In his quarters, Dante dons the virtual headset, but Penny is glitching so heavily by this point that their communication breaks down. On the bridge, Percy is insisting on going with Dante, but he wants her and Luc to take off as soon as he and Bramwell are on board, and somehow he'll meet them at Callisto. Percy storms off and Dante finds her at the lookout. He talks to her about their history, the first time they set foot on this ship together. He tries to reassure her, but they both know this plan is light years away from foolproof. Tears are shed and they embrace.

Dante, Luc, and Electra are in the docking hold, waiting for Bramwell. What they don't know is that he's entered his secret compartment, which is a tunnel leading to Black Light, a large, manned torpedo. He fires up the engines, surprising everyone on board, and Raiders are on the screens wanting to know about the weapons system being activated. Before anyone can do anything, Black Light has launched, and plows into the Gathering outpost...

Where all it destroys is a single corridor as the old explosives fail to go off. Everyone just stares, then the Tulip turns tail as every Raider ship ever undocks and pursues. Our heroes get away, but all their plans have been shattered. Percy still sits in the lookout, watching the stars. Dante is in his quarters, in a dead man's uniform, and looks down at the chip that contained what was left of his wife. He watches the light of its reflection dance on the walls.


To quote Igor from last week:

Well... that was unexpected.

In a good way.

Even at it's best, Starhunter has largely been a mediocre show up to this point, with an almost amateurish feel to the writing and direction (apt, as a lot of it was by inexperienced folk), and good actors drifting through meh roles against wildly inconsistent guest stars in bland sets. There have been high points, but those have mostly been high points curved by the show they're in. In other words, "This was pretty darn good... for an episode of Starhunter."

"Black Light" was amazing as an episode of Starhunter. More importantly, it's fantastic as a piece of scifi television in general.

We open with a great cold-war plot, the soldier thrown out of his time who's unable to let go of the long gone war that was his yesterday. James Smith is marvelous as Col. Bramwell, going through all the stages of grief as he first refuses to accept the situation, then finally does, then gets flooded with the dawning realization of just how much this means he's lost, then narrows that focus on the loss that hit him the hardest (his son), and uses that to return to his goal of fulfilling that final mission. So he comes full circle, though I love that there's moments where he actually seems to be considering what his life could be in this new world, which is especially compelling given the notion that the Raiders, his sworn enemies, have actually put him in a position of hero worship for the strategic fight he put up against them. He could be a star, albeit among those who cost him his son. So I not only love the twist of him climbing into the manned torpedo and launching himself on a final suicide strike against the Raiders... but the further twist that it's a failure. He hits the station and dies, but he doesn't explode, so one lowly corridor is flicked off into space as all the Raiders live to fight another day. In this one pathetic act of human worthlessness, this man has refused to let go of his dead son and has thus deprived Dante of the possibility of reuniting with his still living one.

This is so perfectly played, especially they way they draw out Dante's plan to walk behind enemy lines and try to find his boy before he himself is outed and done away with. Pare nailed Dante for me here, combining both his absolute hope at what he wants to accomplish, with the "dead man walking" acceptance that it has a very slim chance of actually working out in his favor. The scene between him and Percy, where they say everything but goodbye even though that's the cloud hanging over their looming parting, is absolutely gripping. If you pay attention, that's largely a single take the two are acting in, and those are real tears Pare builds himself to and sheds just as they finally embrace. That the plan is thrown out the window and they go back to their daily lives at the end is irrelevant to the fact that they genuinely believed that was the last time they were going to see each other, and I have nothing but praise for the cast and crew for how well they pulled it off.

And I have to say, that twist surprised me. The gradual build of this episode seems to be leading to some great inevitable change our heroes will go through, with the steaming weight of a season finale. As we were getting into the last 10 minutes, I literally checked the DVD case to make sure I hadn't put the last disc in by mistake, and even when reassured, I convinced myself that this had to be the first half of a two-parter. Neither is the case, and once again, I was floored by the botched suicide attempt that had me on the edge of my seat, then slumping back with an awed and spent grin as I saw it play out. I was just like Percy and Dante, both just sitting there, quietly taking the relieving return to status quo in. Even as Dante's relief has the bitter taste of having been robbed of his closest opportunity to track down Travis. This episode is so precisely put together that every single shot of it has meaning and carries the story. This is what I mean when I said I was disappointed by the more scattershot direction of the last episode. Here, the direction enhances a great script. There, it held a great script back.

If anything feels missing, it's that the farewell moment between Dante and Luc is so brief I almost missed it. But even then, it makes sense that she'd hang back and let Dante and Percy focus on themselves and each other. She's crew, but they're blood, and while they've grown quite close to her, she doesn't share nearly as deep a bond as they do. That said, the episode still has some great Luc moments, like her walking around all badass with people at gunpoint, or the bits with her and the games of poker.

Another surprising element is that of Electra, the female Raider arms dealer. Surprising not only for how she demonstrates that Raiders have been "adopting" (what happened to "liberating"?) girls as well as boys, but for how she ties into the overall plot. There have been several episodes in the past where the "bounty of the week" ends up playing second fiddle to someone else the crew randomly encounters, and I was worried we'd have that here. No, Electra ends up schooling Bramwell on the unexpected legacy he left behind, and is the key to Dante's gamble to risk plunging into the gathering of Raiders. It also doesn't hurt that Sam Loggin is a great actress who plays the role wonderfully with a sarcastic wit and a challenging smile.

I'm kinda bummed that we never find out the eventual fate of Electra, especially since she does stay true to her end of the deal and plays her part in the aborted con. She isn't credited in any upcoming episodes, making her another potentially recurring role that sadly never came to be. Which is especially a shame as her thread totally gives her a way to stick with the crew: the fact that she's a Raider will keep her from being accepted in primary space society, and her part in the con against the Raiders would make them none to happy if they ever saw her again. I really wish we could have seen something more explored here.

This is an absolutely solid hour of television, with a strong plot, strong direction, and all the cast bringing their A-game. There's so many great twists and moments of emotion, and even little wonderful little bits like Bramwell's dying A.I., and the history of the Tulip, and Percy's reaction at the dead man's uniform, and Electra trying to sleep with Bramwell so as to tie herself to the fame that he's still trying to accept.

This is a great episode.


You know how Noel thought the last episode had a lot of potential, but didn't actually live up to it? It's kind of how I feel about “Black Light.”

There are a lot of things that should have worked. The Finding Travis overarching plot returns with vengeance, putting Dante closer then ever to finding his son. He's willing to venture into completely unknown territory where he's at a disadvantage, constantly at risk of being recognized - all while knowing that the odds of finding Travis among hundreds of Raiders aren't in his favor. And Percy offers to put her own life on the line as well, just because she can't bear the thought of losing her uncle. This should, by all rights, have made for a compelling, emotionally charged episode.

And then there's Colonel Bramwell, a man out of his time, facing consequences of failures he can't possible correct - a man who lost everything that was important to him. The whole Man Out of Time thing is pretty old hat in science fiction, but the big reason why it keeps getting used is, in the hands of a good writer, it can make for some compelling plot and interactions.

We get to find out more about what motivates the Raiders. We get a better sense of what the Raiders actually believe in. This episode should have humanized the Raiders, giving them more dimension.

So many things should have worked. But, in the end, it never quite clicks.

Let's talk about exposition. The writers are weary of it for a good reason. Use it too much, and it becomes an infodump, distracting from whatever story they are trying to tell and annoying the readers in the process. But there is such thing as not giving enough exposition, and I think that's where Starhunter stumbles.

Consider Firefly. That show never went into too many details about what the Reavers were or what the Alliance was, but it did establish several important facts fairly early on:

  1. The Alliance has the ultimate governing authority over all known inhabited planets. It doesn't take kindly to anything that challenges said authority. The Alliance is corrupt and involved in secret conspiracies.
  2. Reavers are murderous, rapacious creatures who can't be reasoned with, and they pursue their prey brutally and relentlessly.
  3. The Browncoats rebelled against the Alliance and lost. The popular opinion is pretty divided on whether or not they were freedom fighters or good for nothing troublemakers.

When conflicts arose on the show, we knew what was at stake. We knew why our heroes distrusted the Alliance and were scared shitless of the Reavers. Even if we knew all the details, we knew what sort of things our heroes were up against. That gave the conflicts weight and dimension. It gave us reasons to care.

On Starhunter, on the other hand we knew prior to "Black Light" that Raiders were former members of the military and they steal children to replenish the numbers. In this episode, we find out the Raiders and whatever power controls the military were at war over territory. What was the war fought over? Stealing the babies I get, but why did they try to conquer territory? Why were they fighting the government at all? And the episode drives home something that has been bugging me since the beginning of the show - what were the Raiders trying to accomplish, exactly?

It's hard to care about the war when you don't know what was at stake. It's hard to sympathize with Bramwell's loss and understand his hatred of the Raiders if we don't know what he was fighting for.

It doesn't help that, 11 episodes into the series, the Raiders remain very ill-defined in general. We know they want the children they kidnap to reject their pre-Raider lives. We get a sense of why some of kidnappees might be willing to fully embrace the Raider lifestyle. In this episode, we learn they have a certain sense of honor and that they meet together every four years for some vague purpose. But these are just hints.

Say what you will about the Orchard's Mysterious Council of Vagueness, but we know what they want - to unlock the Divinity Cluster - and we know they're willing to do immoral things to make it happen. That alone makes them more compelling than the Raiders ever were.

We don't need to know everything, but if the show wants us to see this as more than A Plot Device to Propel Dante Into Action And Occasionally Serve Other Plot Purposes, we need to at least have some idea as to who the Raiders are and what they want.

It doesn't even have to be the real motivations. It can be what the rest of the Solar System thinks their motivations are. But something has to be there.

It also doesn't help that the bit about the Raider/Mars war wasn't mentioned before. At least I don't think it was mentioned before. When Bramwell is introduced, we're basically asked to care about a war we never heard of before and have no reason to particularly care about. To once again use Firefly as an example, the opening scene of the original pilot takes place during a battle that wasn't really explained in great detail. But we knew it was a war of independence, and that gave us a reason to care. People like their wars of independence. And in America, at least, there's an obvious historical parallel that makes the viewers care all the more.

And then there is - and I really, really start to feel like a broken record at this point - Dante's lack of charisma. I rather liked him in "Cell Game," but in this episode, he's back to being frustratingly under-reactive. His speech to Percy before he's about to go to the Raider space station sounds heartfelt and touching on paper, but somehow the words and the acting never quite connect. I wanted to like that part, to feel for Dante and Percy, but I never really could.

Finally, there's Electra. I don't really understand why she's so ready to go along with Dante's plan. I would understand if she goes along initially to get Dante to take off her handcuffs - but what stops her from shooting Dante and Luc the second she has guns in her hands? And why does she continue to cooperate with them when Bramwell's suicide run blows their ruse to smithereens?

I figure she didn't backstab the crew out of a sense of honor - she said she'll cooperate and she did - but that doesn't explain why she keeps working with them when Bramwell backs out on his term of the deal and puts her people at risk.

"Black Light" marks the half-way point of Season 1 of Starhunter. It could have been epic. There's heart-wrenching emotional conflicts - Bramwell dealing with irreplaceable loss, Dante coming close to finding his son only to have the opportunity snatched away, everybody facing the possibility that they might not come out of this alive. It could have made for a compelling mid-season episode. But instead, it's a bouquet of good ideas that weren't allowed to bloom.

Some uncategorized thoughts:
  • So this episode has a young woman named Electra who's hitting on a man old enough to be her father (even before he was cryogenically frozen). I wonder if that's a deliberate parallel.
  • In the end, Bramwell's suicide mission is pretty anti-climactic. I figured he would take out the entire station, or at least heavily damage it - but no, he only blew up a small section. Most of the station is fine.
  • Speaking of which - why didn't Dante try to stop him? For all he knew, Travis could have been in the section Bramwell was heading for.
  • Whatever else may be said about this episode, the fact that Percy doesn't hesitate to offer to go with Dante when it looks like he might die on a mission is pretty touching. Nothing in the episode can take away from that.
  • While I'm not quite keen on Electra as a character, I like her look - the clothes, the hair, the eye make-up - and I think the actress actually does a pretty good job with what she's given.

We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "Goodbye, So Long".

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