June 16, 2013

Starhunter, episode 9 "Order"

We open with a Rudolpho video, wherein he rages about how much he hates the very concept of religion.

Despite warnings from border guards, a large pyramidal ship plunges toward the sun. It's filled with the praying worshipers of the cult of Vahooti (sp?), led by the charismatic and towering Brother 13, with his devoted teenage bride Marina at his side. A worshiper, Jacob, expresses momentary doubt, but when he passes a test of faith, Brother 13 gives him a "rejuvenation" - literally transferring energy into the other man through the laying on of Brother 13's hand - and Jacob becomes zealous in his devotion.

The crew of the Tulip are picking up some sidework doing patrols around the sun. They spot the Vahootian vessel and, after Dante and Luc trade some barbs about the worth of faith, can do nothing but watch as the ship crashes into the sun, killing everyone aboard. Except for a single shuttle craft, damaged by the explosion, which the Tulip pulls into the docking bay. There, Dante and Luc find Jacob, Marina, and a wounded Brother 13. Dante relieves the uncooperative Jacob of his ceremonial dagger, having Luc drag him to lockup, then escorts the couple to guest quarters where Marina can tend to Brother 13's injuries. 13 tries to sooth his way into Dante's trust with rhetoric, but Dante has none of it, calling Brother 13 garbage and a coward for sending people to their deaths. He tries to raise his hand to Dante's head, but Dante smacks him down. Dante storms out as Luc arrives to scan Brother 13's injuries and he finds her somewhat more receptive to his rhetoric.

On the bridge, Percy listens as Caravaggio reveals Vahooti was a 20th century monk who wrote extensive biblical analyses (a play on Martin Luther and Lutherans, if you will), and Brother 13 was an army mechanic who spent time as a prisoner of war during the civil war on Callisto, who claims to have been given mental powers as a result. Percy goes to feed the prisoners and follows Marina as she storms out of the room after being dismissed by Brother 13.

Luc is now alone with Brother 13, and is shocked when he starts talking about her quest for the Divinity Cluster. He tricks her into getting close enough for him to lay a palm on her forehead, enveloping her head in energy and leaving her suddenly filled with a sense of devotion towards Vahooti. When Dante comes in, he realizes something is wrong and confines Luc to her quarters. Alone with Dante, Brother 13 tries to seduce the bounty hunter with talk of Travis and an attempt at palming his forehead, but Dante kicks his ass and drags him to a cell in holding, where Jacob is screaming with withdrawal for "more faith!"

Percy leads a cuffed Marina around the ship as they discuss their lives and views both in and outside of faith. When they encounter a devoted Luc (who escaped from her quarters and is sporting Jacob's dagger), Marina realizes another has been selected to be Brother 13's bride, and the longer she stays away from her husband, the more she comes to question her faith, leading Dante to realize the "rejuvenation" spell Brother 13 performed on Luc will eventually wear off.

Luc goes to holding, where she frees and arms Jacob and Brother 13, who plans to use the Tulip as his new ark. Dante confronts them, where he's forced into a standoff with Luc. He shoots the gun from her hand, but a new standoff starts when Jacob grabs Luc and puts a dagger to her throat. That's when Percy arrives and shoots him in the back. Brother 13 is again locked up and Luc, realizing something is wrong with her, voluntarily locks herself up as well.

Brother 13, Jacob, and Marina are handed over to the authorities to sort out, and Rudolpho personally calls to congratulate our heroes on the big bounty this is bringing in. Freeing Luc, whose head has cleared, they debate whether or not Brother 13's powers were real, and this is where Luc learns of his incarceration during the Callisto civil war. When she's alone in her quarters, she passes this info along in a message to her father.

On the prisoner transport, Brother 13 wins the devotion of one of his guards.


Typically, it doesn't take me long to crank out one of these reviews immediately after watching an episode, but I'm not finding it quite so easy this time. It's been over a day since I watched the episode, and I still can't quite figure out if I liked it or not, nor what it ultimately meant in the broader scheme of things.

The plot is pretty simple, and the story of a prophet escaping the mass suicide of his cult only to mess with the crew through his mental powers wouldn't have been out of place on, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation or SeaQuest or whatnot. There's a cheesy simplicity to it, with the charismatic leader, his zealot protector, and his young wife who goes from believer to a dawning sense of doubt. It works, don't get me wrong, and it's executed quite nicely, it just feels like an odd story to come across here.

Maybe what's keeping me at arm's length is the cynicism of it, that almost the entire episode takes a firm stance on the side of dismissing religion as damaging nonsense instead of keeping an opposing viewpoint to give the story balance. I'll admit, I myself am an atheist who views religion in much the same way as Rudolpho in his opening vid, but as a narrative, it feels too one-sided and lacking in a textural debate between characters. Dante is pretty dead set against what he sees as nuttball cults. Religion is something Percy's never really thought about before (which is a bit of a stretch, but okay) and she's none too impressed with what she's seeing here. The one voice in defense of faith is Luc's, but even that's a timid argument that quickly victimized as she's corrupted by her religious encounter and has to fight to free herself from it. The message of the episode literally seems to be "the moment you give religion a chance, it'll latch on and drag you down". Again, I have my beliefs and find some of it amusing, but a one-sided fight is still a one-sided fight, and lacks any true drama.

But again, it's still nicely executed. The direction is some of the most consistent we've had. Leon Herbert cuts an imposing figure as Brother 13, growling his lines with absolute conviction and having the soulful gaze that can pull in followers. Marcelle Duprey as his teen bride (a nice, honest touch) is a little hard to warm to at first, but goes through a nice little arc as the mental control causing her devotion starts to break down. Percy is especially nice this episode, taking in all the goings on with a curious eye, and though she never believes in any of it, she's never mean about her thoughts, and the scenes where her and Marina bonding are really quite nice.

And, hey, the first episode where I really liked Dante! Not because he's shitting all over religion, but because he actually steps up, takes charge, and consistently keeps order and leads the action. In fact, he and Luc have almost entirely switched roles this episode, with her being the one who kind of half-heartedly tags along before being completely overwhelmed by the crook-of-the-week, while Dante strides forth and orders ahoy. Which isn't to completely dismiss Claudette Roche. She's given a few weak moments of material, but still has some great moments, my favorite being her realization something is wrong with her and voluntarily locking herself in the cell.

Another thing I like is the string of fakeouts in terms of how this episode ties into the broader scheme of things. At first, it seems to be an entirely standalone sidequest. BUT THEN! Brother 13 starts speaking cryptically to Luc about the Divinity Cluster. BUT THEN! we realize he's just reading that knowledge from her mind in his quest to manipulate her. BUT THEN! at the very end of the episode, we learn Brother 13's stint as a prisoner-of-war was on Callisto, the very same moon where Novak conducted brutal experiments before the prison camps were liberated by the soldiers that included Luc. Thus anchoring Brother 13 right in the middle of several of our big plot threads. And with the way the episode ends, I very much look forward to his return.

IMDB, you better be lying to me that he's not coming back!

Overall, this is a well executed episode which is nonetheless still questionable in terms of how it chooses to approach it's central themes. Even the argument that they're just showing the danger of fringe cults doesn't hold water because Dante makes blanket condemnations against religion in general which have no opposing voice to combat them. Again, atheism yay and all that, but there's a bit of laziness on the part of the writers to not even try to strike some form of balance.


See, this laziness is precisely why I'm annoyed with this episode.

You can make a pretty interesting story about the meaning of faith, why some people might embrace it and some people might reject it. Heck, in Starhunter, where we have alien genes giving humans supernatural powers and a lot of people talking about unlocking the cluster to become god-like, that story can take on a whole other dimension. It should make for a complex, nuanced story.

But that's not what we get.

When you have “faith” represented by a suicidal cult, Luc's statements about faith being worthwhile become laughably naive. Heck, the fact that she thinks a cult is a normal example of faith implies some troubling things about Luc (but then, she did work for the Orchard, and Secret Conspiracies of Vague Menace love their cult-like trappings).

Unlike Noel, I would not describe myself as an atheist per se - at least not at the moment (my relationship with faith has been... complicated) - and I have dated a person who struggled with her beliefs. She and I used to have a lot of discussions about those topics, and one thing that stayed with me after all this time is that faith is a complex thing that means a great deal to believers. When faith is reduced to ridiculously loaded stereotypes... it annoys me. A lot.

That said, I liked Rudolpho's speech in the beginning of the episode. Unlike most of the episode, it actually draws distinction between destructive cults and faith in general. And it actually explained what atheism is pretty well, showing that, contrary to the ever-tiresome stereotypes, atheists are not mean-spirited cynics who don't believe in anything and dislike people of faith Just Because.

(The big difference between American culture and the Russian culture is that, in America, people tend to assume that you have some kind of faith and find the notion of atheism more puzzling then anything. So, if nothing else, I think it's nice to see that something like Rudolpho's speech made it onto American television.)

Another thing that annoys me a great deal is the episode's handling of Luc's character arc. In the recap of the last episode, I wondered how she could possibly stay loyal to the Orchard after all that happened. And I think they were trying to address this in the episode, with Luc talking about having doubts about something she believes in. But then she gets mind-whammied by Brother 13 and it's all shoved aside. By the end of the episode, she's reporting to her father as if nothing's happened, which just seems like another wasted opportunity.

Speaking of the cult leader - like Noel, I like Brother 13, but my interpretation of the character is a bit different. I don't get a sense he honestly believes in what he's saying. Rather, the character strikes me as a charismatic opportunist who uses his worshippers' faith to get what he wants. I think Herbert does a pretty great job conveying Brother 13's charisma and larger-than-life presence. If nothing else, I can see why people would want to follow him even without the mental control.

Speaking of which, the way Brother 13 mentally manipulates his followers reminds me of the Strugatsky brothers' Inhabited Island (released in English-speaking countries as Prisoners of Power). The mind control mechanism used in the novel made people more susceptible to suggestion and required regular reinforcement which induced an emotional high. When left outside the range of said devices, people experienced withdrawal-like symptoms, much like Brother 13's acolyte does once he's locked up. Now, I'm pretty certain the creators of Starhunter never read the book (Strugatsky Brothers' work is pretty obscure outside the former Iron Curtain), but I think it's an interesting coincidence.

As for Dante... On one hand, I have to agree with Noel - I kind of wind up liking Dante more than usual because he actually seems to give a toss about what's going on for once. On the other hand, he still comes off a bit too abrasive and mean-spirited. On the third hand, a lot of times, he's abrasive and mean-spirited for a pretty good reason...

I guess, in the end, I'm still not sold on Dante as a lead, but if we have more episodes like this, I might warm up to him. Given the show's record so far, I'm not optimistic.

Overall, the episodes has many strengths. Aside from everything I mentioned earlier, I second Noel's thoughts on Percy and Brother 13's teenage bride character, as well as a clever way the episode ultimately ties into the larger backstory. But all these things are greatly overshadowed by wasted potential. This episode could have been an interesting look at the meaning of faith. It could have have had some good character development for Luc. But it does neither, and the show is worse off for it.

We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "Cell Game".

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