August 18, 2013

Starhunter, episode 16 "Super Max"

We open on a video where Rudolpho defends greed.

While his ship is docked at Reno-7 station for repairs, Dante is hit on at the bar by Zelda, a vampy and bored rich trophy looking for some action. Amused but uninterested, he joins Luc and Percy, only for them to get a sudden emergency call from Caravaggio. They arrive at the Tulip to find Max, a hyper-eager businessman, and his crew of men loading prison materials into the docking bay for a retrofit. It turns out Rudolpho just went and sold the Tulip to Max, who's looking to turn the ship into the first of a fleet of mobile prison vessels as part of his aggressive start-up company, Super Max. Dante is of course befuddled, even when Max offers to hire him as the ship's warden and even keep the other two on board. Looking into things, they find out the sale is fully legal and Max continues his pitch, only for Dante and Luc to pull their guns and force him and his men off the ship. They then try to take off, but Caravaggio has been reprogrammed to be loyal to Max, and the station operators are authorized to shut down Tulip's systems, which they do and Max and his men re-enter with armed guards.

Our heroes are instead kicked off the ship, with Dante discovering most of his credits were tied up in company accounts that are no longer active, and there's an extensive waiting list to re-apply for a bounty hunter's license. So he, Luc, and Percy hatch a plan. Dante and Luc return and buddy up to Max, charming him into letting them take the offer of staying on board as crew; Dante as warden, Luc using her "extensive military knowledge" as security chief. Percy is made a janitor, which frees her to scurry through the duct work, snipping and rewiring essential ship's systems, and uploading a virus into Caravaggio. They're also introduced to Max's wife, who is, of course, Zelda. She continues throwing herself at Dante every chance she gets, especially when her husband is around as he's too impotent to both pleasure and challenge her.

Percy's sabotage results in a reactor failure which has them limping back to Reno-7, with Dante quietly milking up the prices on replacement parts in a move that puts Max both over budget and behind schedule on picking up his first batch of prisoners. He starts to suspect something is going on, but doesn't have anything to pin on Dante. Yet. They're back on course, with Zelda revealing she wants Dante to off her husband so she can collect all his credits. Playing poker with Max's crew, he finds out this is typical for Zelda. Also, through Caravaggio (whom Percy has brought out of his new programming) and Luc's Orchard connections, they find out that Max not only bankrupted himself to set the prison operation in motion, but is late on a number of bank loan payments, which the Orchard nudge into defaulting.

Max is strung out to the breaking point by now, and even with the locking mechanisms of the holding cells acting up and Caravaggio only speaking in binary, he insists they go ahead with picking up the criminals, and any further repairs can be made later. Zelda throws herself at Dante again, refusing to take no for an answer, and when Max walks in on the two, she shouts "rape" and Dante is locked in a cell, with Luc joining him for good measure.

Stuck waiting on his batch of inmates due to a riot in their primary prison, Max decides to test his "backup plan" on Dante and Luc, in which his head goon drop a smoke bomb in the holding room. It's not lethal under normal circumstances, but with no ventilation, the smoke is piling up quick. Zelda joins Max on the bridge, questioning the situation as he watches our heroes choke. He says he got this idea from her when she made an offhand comment about how you could kill off prisoners to make space for new ones, thus channeling in more money. She's disgusted at this, but he thought this was what she wanted, that he's proving he can be a "real man" who takes action.

In the holding room, Caravaggio is struggling to undo the newly installed locks, when Percy comes in with a gas mask and pistol, and shoots them right off. Our heroes are in the clear and quickly subdue Max's men, locking them in cells alongside their boss and his angry wife, who's just learned his bank accounts are empty. The Tulip heads back to Reno-7, with Dante back in charge with more than enough to prosecute Max on, and an incoming call from Rudolpho being ignored.


In our Twitter conversation last week, Noel gave me the impression that the next episode would involve time warps or some and such, so when I started watching it, I was very surprised when it turned out to be a Someone Buys an Important Object/Location and Heroes Must Get It Back episode.

I was even more surprised that, while the episode hits a lot of predictable notes, it's actually pretty entertaining.

Now, given all the serious, plot-developing stuff in the last three episodes, one might expect more plot-developing stuff. But honestly, after all that (and lots of going around in circles), it's nice to get a more lighthearted episode. And yes, in spite of the serious stakes (the potential loss of the Tulip), I would call it "lighthearted". We know how this episode is going to end, the only question is how it will get there. And the episode definitely gets there with tongue firmly in cheek.

That said, I'm not sure if the change of tone quite works in terms of the overall arc. The last time we saw Luc, her father was killed, and I talked about how I hoped we would see her cope with the loss. But in this episode, it doesn't seem like it was a big deal - at least Luc didn't show any signs of grief - and I don't quite buy it. While Luc and Darius' relationship was complicated, she was always a loving daughter, and her father was clearly important to her. I wonder if the future episodes will address this or if we're just going to skip past the grieving process.

That said, I do like that Dante and Percy are trusting Luc again, and that all the silly attempts to keep her involvement with the Orchard under wraps are over and done with. The main trio have some good interactions in this episode. Even Dante seems more charismatic and natural than he usually is. He even flirts with a woman - and, unlike his interactions with Andrea, there's actual chemistry (at least until Dante starts to get a sense of what he's dealing with, when the chemistry, understandably, becomes distinctly one-sided).

Speaking of this episode's antagonists, I actually rather like Max. Yes, he's an antagonist, and yes, he's quite knowingly grating, but he is, in his own way, a decent person. Unlike a lot of antagonists in episodes like this, he doesn't throw the crew off the ship and seems genuinely interested in working with them. He doesn't treat his employees badly, and while he likes Dante, he has enough sense not to trust him completely when things start to go wrong.

In a way, Max is kind of tragic. He wants to be a good person, he wants to please his wife, but because he's ultimately self-interested, preoccupied with his vision, and has little awareness of how he comes off to others, it never quite comes out right. Throughout the whole episode, he seems genuinely upset that people don't appreciate all the nice things he does. It's... not "endearing" exactly, but it gives some humanity to what would otherwise be a completely flat stock character.

Zelda, on the other hand... Actress Tracy-Ann Oberman is pretty, in an Alex-Kingston-as-River-Song sort of way, so I can see why Dante and Max are interested in her. But at the same time, I couldn't really get a handle on Zelda as a character. At first, I had her pegged as a classic "gold-digger who wants to get rid of her husband but keep the money" type, but by the end of the episode, it's clear that she does care about Max in some weird way. Looking back, it seems like she's someone with some kind of impulse control issues - she changes her mind on the fly, jumps to conclusions, and is prone to emotional outbursts. But ultimately, I don't think the writers ever quite got a handle on her, so it was kind of hard for me to relate to her as anything beyond her plot function.

Though I do wonder if her name is a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald's famously unstable wife.

All in all, it's a surprisingly enjoyable episode. And hey, next week, it looks like we'll get the time-related shenanigans episode, and, with it, a shift back to a more serious tone.

Side notes:
  • Cliches being what they are, I think it's safe to assume that Dante will get the ship back. I'm just not entirely clear on how. I mean, yes, Max and Zelda are locked in the Tulip's prison, and, yes, Max is probably going to be bankrupt and he'd most likely be forced to sell the Tulip. But that doesn't mean Rudolpho is going to buy it back. For all we know, someone else like Max could buy the ship, and then the crew will have to go through the events of this episode all over again, just with different players. Maybe that's what the next episode is going to be about: Dante trying to get rid of owner after owner until it gets so repetitive it feels like a time warp.
  • Looking though this episode's credits, I see the warden of the prison space station is played by Paul "Spike" Lees, and that he's also the show's line producer. IMDB reveals an extensive list of production credits, but this was his only screen appearance. As the other credits went by, I couldn't help but wonder - what kind of person would nickname himself "Spike?" Especially when it makes him sound like a porn parody of Spike Lee. I'm just saying.


The last few episodes have been jam packed with drama, tension, continuity, major plot twists... well, maybe "jam packed" isn't the right word as they've trickled about an episode's worth of story over the course of three. Either way, many of the threads in the show coalesced, alliances and motives shifted, Darius went boom, and our trio of heroes are left wondering what the next stages of their personal journeys hold in store for them now that they've become more personally intertwined.

So let's take a break from all that for some chuckles!

Seriously, the whiplash between those three episodes and this one is so sudden that I'm fascinated to see what Igor made of it and whether or not he's still talking to the show or if they're taking a break till things cool over. Me, I'm fine with it. [EDIT: Turns out Igor is, too!] It's jarring, sure, but it's just as jarring for the characters, and as events play out, it's a welcome breath of fresh air to get some light shenanigans after a steady run of dreary tension.

On top of being a pallet cleanser, it's a really solid, mostly standalone episode. The guest cast is great, with Paul Mari (currently a writer on the British soap EastEnders) easily capturing both the capitalist bravado and impotent personal life of Max, a guy who'd be so easy to hate were he not so incompetent while being so desperate to be seen as otherwise. Tracy Ann Oberman is an absolute delight as his wife Zelda, vamping after men to both get herself laid and have her husband killed - though both somewhat halfheartedly because she does secretly love the guy and is just flaunting her disapproval of his choices and attentions. In a world where we've already seen prison systems established as privatized, these two are the One Percenters, the type eager to create a fleet of ships carrying the nastiest of the nasty prisoners in a scheme to get rich quick. And what I like is that they aren't corporate, no, Max is a small and eager startup looking to shoot up the ranks faster than his tapped out accounts and defaulting loan will likely allow, all so he can be one of the big boys with a company logo that has his name right there in it. These are a pair of scoundrels who it's impossible to not love and delight in, and I almost wished our heroes ditched Rudolpho after his betrayal and set up a new agency with this pair. Alas.

Our heroes are also a blast to watch, as Dante slaps on a bullshit smile so he can play the company man, always there to reassure and gently nudge his increasingly flustered and suspicious boss. I love that Max is onto Dante pretty early, but Dante keep heaping on the compliments so much he sneaks by for a while. Luc isn't even trying to hide her sarcasm at having to wear the bright orange vest of the new uniform and play goody for the classy couple, especially as she has to keep mentioning her "oh by the way I have military experience have I mentioned the military experience I have", and the one time she tries to bond with Zelda, she has the elitism of privilege literally thrust in her face. Some of my favorite bits are Percy scurrying through the tunnels, cutting and rewiring important systems, and uploading viruses into her own beloved computer. And even Caravaggio gets some great scenes as his programming is altered to turn him on the crew, and even when they turn him back, he's not very thrilled that he's been allowed and asked to lie for them.

I'll admit that Pare is still overly laid back as Dante, and this almost strays too far from recent events. Rudolpho's actions only really make sense if he's no longer being paid off by the Orchard, yet Luc has no problems contacting the Orchard and asking for help. Does she still have allies in the organization? Was Rudolpho only being paid by Darius? I don't really have a clue. But I do like that Dante and Luc are fully open around one another and are settling back into their teamwork flow, even with her little sting of saying she knows pretty well how to pretend to be loyal to her crew. My only other quibble is that Percy just seems to be in on things now... or is she? I don't know and can't tell, as we never got the scene of them filling her in, and they spend most of this episode separated from her.

So it's not an episode without its frustrations, but I found them very minor as I was pulled into the gradual unfolding of the farce, the delightful cast of supporting players, and the witty script which constantly had me chuckling and even got a few solid laughs out of me.

This is a great episode.

Some random thoughts:
  • Love the saucy saxophone sting every time Zelda appears.
  • Almost as much as I love Max nicknaming Caravaggio "Blinky".
  • If stun beams are so easily available in this universe, why do our heroes still use conventional firearms which fire stun bullets?
  • Max's main goon (played by Daniel D'Or/Philip Jackson regular - yes, he was in Cybercity, too - Tony Curtis Blondell under the stage name Matthew Wade) is a really nice background character in that, unlike so many henchmen, he's just a normal working dude there for a job. He always does what the boss tells him, but not without moments of hesitation, and even when he ultimately sides with where the money is coming from, I like little bits where he recognizes Dante is in the right.
  • "You're under arrest!" "For what?" "...... We'll think of something!"

We'll be back next Saturday with another Starhunter adventure: "A Twist in Time".

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