“Devs” is a Creepy Reflection on the Nature of Reality.

A new sci-fi thriller called “Devs” is available on Hulu. This eight part miniseries is released under the branding of “FX on Hulu” however the series doesn’t appear to be available on FX network at least as of yet. Nick Offerman plays a billionaire genius Forest who runs a computer company that has made major breakthroughs in quantum computing. If you’ve not heard of quantum computing it’s a new type of computer processor that takes advantage of some of the bizarre properties of quantum mechanics. Pundits currently claim that it has the potential to create the most powerful computers we’ve ever seen. It could be a disruptive technology that could unlock any current encryption techniques rendering all computer security obsolete. In real life quantum computing has yet to deliver on its promises but in this series it has delivered way beyond expectations.

The story follows Lily Chan played by Sonoya Mizuno works for a computer company called Amaya along with her boyfriend Sergei. Sergei gets promoted to the company’s top-secret division known as “Devs” but disappears the next day. She goes on a quest to uncover what really happened to him and to try to figure out what’s really going on in the company she works for.

The entire show has a very creepy feel to it. The Amaya company campus is in a wooded area featuring a giant 60 foot statue that looks like a two-year-old girl dressed in a dress. It sort of looks like a giant baby doll. No explanation is given why they have this bizarre monument. We get lots of creepy looking shots of this figure towering above the trees. The soundtrack that runs continuously beneath the show also adds a very creepy feeling to the entire thing.

At this point I will just say that after 3 episodes I’m really enjoying it and giving it a strong rating of “I like it“. It is being described as a miniseries of 8 episodes so don’t expect a second season. If I’m going to continue to talk more about it I really need to get into some spoilers. If you read on, I don’t think it will ruin your enjoyment of the show but some people are especially sensitive to any spoilers so if that’s you… stop reading now and go watch the show.

spoilers below

 

 

 

In the opening episode, Sergei is taken on a tour of the Devs facility by CEO Forrest played by Nick Offerman. It is housed in a completely separate building on the Amaya campus. A giant quantum supercomputer is housed in a vacuum sealed building that hovers inside the building using magnetic levitation. The entire thing is completely sealed from the outside world. Sergei is invited to sit down at a workstation, look at the code they are developing and then he will realize what the Devs project is all about. After several minutes of staring at the screen he suddenly jumps from his seat, runs into the restroom, and vomits violently.

We don’t have to wait long to find out what disturbed him so much. Forest explains to him that indeed this quantum computer has proven that the entire universe is deterministic. Every event in the world is the inevitable consequence of chemistry and physics working on the conditions prior to that moment. Everything is total cause and effect. Essentially free will does not exist. Everything that we do is 100% the inevitable consequence of what has happened prior to that. So this computer has the ability to accurately predict the future as well as run the equations backwards and look into the past.

In subsequent episodes we see them looking in on the crucifixion of Jesus, the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake, and then more personal items such as Marilyn Monroe having sex with her husband Arthur Miller. The latter was done so in violation of company policy and earns the programmers a reprimand. One of the female scientists Katie played by Alison Pill bemoans “Why do male techs always feel the need to caricature themselves? Step one: Create a new technology that reinvents the nature of human existence. Step two: Use it for porn.” Personally I would’ve gone for Marilyn and JFK.

One of the other consequences of the revelation that the universe is completely out of our control means that the enigmatic CEO feels no sense of guilt over anything. If one is not responsible for one’s own actions then one can do whatever they want because that choice is not theirs. It is inevitable.

The main part of the story is Lily trying to uncover Sergei’s disappearance. She is shown a video of him committing suicide but she doesn’t believe it’s real. She comes to discover that he is in fact an industrial spy for Russia. She had no idea. This furthers her feelings that everything isn’t what it seems to be. I’ve only seen the first 3 out of 8 episodes sort remains to be seen how deep the conspiracy goes or where the story will turn after this.

The questions raised by this strange technology and the bizarre revelation that the universe is not what it seems to be along with the mystery of the boyfriend spy and a hidden agenda of the company make this very compelling viewing. As stated before it gets a rating of “I like it” and if you like creepy technology shows sort of like Black Mirror then I highly recommend it.

“Star Trek: Picard” Shows Great Promise

The much anticipated “Star Trek: Picard” premiered on streaming service CBS All Access today. Only the first episode is available and a total of 10 episodes will be released on a weekly basis. The story revolves around former Enterprise Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in his retirement from Starfleet.

There’s no way I can really describe what’s going to happen in future episodes without giving some major spoilers as to what happens in this opening episode. So if you don’t want to know what happens in the opening episode I will just say that I like what I’ve seen and if you are at all a Star Trek fan you definitely want to check it out. One suggestion I will leave you with is you should watch “Star Trek: Short Treks” season 2 episode 6 “Children of Mars” also available only on CBS All Access before watching this premier episode.

SPOILERS BELOW

 

 

 

 

 

The series takes place 14 years after Picard has left Starfleet. It opens with a dream sequence where he is playing poker with Cmdr. Data. Brent Spiner returns to play the role and somehow doesn’t look a day older than we last saw him years ago when he sacrificed his life to save Picard in the film “Star Trek: Nemesis“. One little bit of nitpicking, Data’s eyes didn’t look quite right to me. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we are seeing him in HD compared to the analog TV in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or what the reason was. It just seemed that during the close-ups it was more obvious than usual that he was wearing yellow contact lenses.

The dream ends when they look out the window and you see the destruction of Mars. You might not immediately recognize it unless you’ve seen the Short Trek “Children of Mars” that I mentioned earlier. That short subject depicts an attack on Mars that devastates the planet but doesn’t really explain who is attacking or why.

Picard is living in a French château surrounded by vineyards that are being cared for by robotic machines. He’s accompanied by a pet bit bull which he affectionately refers to as “Number One”. He is tended to by what appeared to be a butler and maid who I initially thought were Vulcans but on further reflection they are probably Romulan. They show great affection for the retired admiral.

Picard is about to be interviewed for a news program and through the course of this interview we get a lot of back story about what has happened in the days since we last saw him. In short, the Romulan sun was going to go supernova. Picard persuaded Starfleet to help with a mass evacuation of the entire planet before it was destroyed. This was despite the fact that the Romulans were a long time enemy of Starfleet. Picard makes it clear he was there to save lives… the fact that they were Romulan lives was immaterial.

The rescue effort was aborted when Mars colony was attacked by so-called “synthetics” which are apparently androids. The reporter points out that Mars is still burning yet to this day. The end result is that synthetic life forms have been completely banned and all research into creating them has been terminated. By interplanetary treaty they are forbidden.

Intercut with Picard’s story we meet a young woman named Dahj played by Isa Briones. She is celebrating with her boyfriend that she has been accepted to a position at the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa to do artificial intelligence research. Suddenly three black clad assassins transport into her apartment, murder her boyfriend, and try to take her captive saying along the way “She hasn’t activated yet”. Suddenly she does “activate” and despite having a hood placed over her head she quickly attacks the three assassins and with almost superhuman moves ends up killing them all. It is obvious she has no idea how she obtained the skills to save her own life and kill these three assassins. As she wanders the streets in a daze, she sees Picard being interviewed on TV and is irresistibly drawn to seek him out.

Picard does not know the woman and has no idea why she would come to him even after she recounts the story of the attack and her unusual ability to easily dispatch her attackers. Through a series of events, Picard concludes that not only is she an android despite the fact she appears completely human (she bleeds real blood), he also theorizes that she is somehow the daughter of Cmdr. Data. Data had once painted a portrait of a woman exactly resembling her and titled the painting “Daughter”.

There are a couple of plot twists I have not revealed. So I didn’t completely spoil the story. I hope I just set it up for you to anticipate what comes in future episodes. The rest of the series will cover Picard trying to figure out who this woman is. Unfortunately (sorry spoiling) she is killed in a subsequent attack by more assassins who are revealed to be Romulan. Picard then goes on a quest to go in search of her twin sister.

Previews for upcoming episodes reveal that we will see Jonathan Frakes reprise his role as Cmdr. Riker a.k.a. Number One and his wife Deanna Troy played by Marina Sirtis. Although these will only appear in a single episode, it doesn’t appear that this is a flashback or dream sequence. Frakes is also listed as the director of 3 of the episodes. We will also see Jeri Ryan reprise her role as former Borg “Seven of Nine” from the TV series “Star Trek: Voyager“. Unfortunately IMDb.com does not yet list her as part of the cast so we don’t know how big her role will be. But the previews indicate it might be significant. There may be other cameo appearances from other previous Star Trek series.

Overall Patrick Stewart credibly re-creates an older version of his most famous character. We also look forward to seeing more of Alison Pill in her role as an artificial intelligence researcher named Dr. Agnes Jurati. I’ve been a big fan of hers ever since her role in “The Newsroom“. Apparently Picard will spend the next episode recruiting a crew and a ship for his quest so we will have new characters introduced soon.

With the exception of one brief shot, the special effects are state-of-the-art. The stunts and action sequences were well done. The plot has great promise leaving many mysteries to be solved over the course of 10 episodes. The show has already been approved for season 2 as well. What is the origin of these extremely human looking androids? Why did the androids attack Mars? And what are the surviving Romulans up to?

I’m sure somewhere along the way Star Trek fans will nitpick a variety of issues. I’ve loved every episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” for the past 2 seasons on CBS All Access but some fans say it’s terrible. I seriously disagree.

I’m giving it a strong rating of “I Really like It” and suggest you check it out. Together with the third season of “Star Trek: Discovery” and the excellent series “The Good Fight” CBS All Access is well worth the money. I’ve also been using it to watch current episodes of CBS programs because I am typically many weeks behind and I don’t have room on my DVR to record them all. Although I’m endorsing the service, of course I have no financial connection to it and the opinions are all my own.

Would You Recognize Jesus If He Arrived Today? “Messiah” on Netflix Seeks the Answer.

Theologians and pundits have often wondered what kind of reception Jesus might’ve had if he had appeared in modern times or what would happen if the promised second coming came in modern times. The new Netflix series “Messiah” gives us a glimpse into what might happen if that occurred. Some spoilers included below.

A charismatic figure who looks like a stereotypical image of Jesus begins preaching in Damascus initially to a mostly Muslim audience. He claims responsibility for a giant dust storm that wipes out the terrorist organization ISIS. The crowd gives him the name “Al-Masih” Arabic for the Messiah. He then leads approximately 2000 refugees to the Israeli border demanding to be let in. As he crosses the border, he is immediately arrested leaving his followers alone in the desert creating a political and humanitarian crisis. Al-Masih is played by Mehdi Dehbi.

The story mostly follows an Israeli interrogator presumably Mossad named Aviram Dahan played by Tomer Sisley and an American CIA agent Eva Geller played by Michelle Monaghan. While being interrogated Al-Masih seems to have secret knowledge of his interrogators that gives him an air of mystical power that shakes them up considerably. He escapes the Israeli prison by an unknown mechanism and Aviram is suspected of releasing him although he did not. After appearing briefly in Jerusalem and miraculously healing a young boy of a gunshot wound, he disappears again and then reappears in a Texas border town that is wiped out by a tornado. Only the small church run by a troubled pastor and his family survives the devastation. Although he originally preached to a Muslim audience he claims to have no particular denomination affiliation and speaks openly to this Christian community challenging them reform their lives to live out their life in peace and harmony with their fellow human beings.

From there he leads a cross-country caravan to Washington DC but no one is sure exactly what his agenda is.

Eva spends much of the series trying to figure out who he really is. Is he a con man? What is his political agenda? There are hints of Russian connections and connection to a known terrorist who hacked Wall Street. All the while she and Aviram struggle with their own personal demons and are haunted by Al-Masih’s mysterious ability to know their life story.

The entire 10 episode series explores the nature of faith, fame, politics, and what it means to really live out one’s peaceful religious convictions. I suppose the main spoiler that I will include is that although his true past is revealed and there is ample evidence that he is a charlatan, there is also ample evidence that there are some supernatural forces involved and that he may in fact be legitimate. He never claims to be the Messiah himself only saying that that’s what his followers call him. He claims to be “The Word” sent from the Father which is a reference to the Gospel of John which describes Jesus as “the Word made flesh”. The series pretty much leaves you to make up your own mind about who or what he really is. Were the supernatural events simply illusions of a skilled magician or was something real happening?

Overall it is extremely well written and well acted by all involved. It is one of the most thought-provoking TV series I had seen up until the time I completed the 10 episode binge which took me just two days. However the title of “most thought-provoking TV series I’d seen in a long time” was eclipsed just a week later by another show that I will review soon.

I highly recommend this series to anyone of faith or those who are interested in religion and its role in modern society. I’m giving it a strong rating of “I really like it“. Check it out and form your own opinions. Would love to hear from you on Facebook about what you think of the series.

“The Mandalorian” Is the Best Star Wars Since “The Empire Strikes Back”

Moving along to our next review of a streaming TV series we have to take a minute to discuss the new Disney+ Star Wars series “The Mandalorian“. If you’ve been on social media at all the last few weeks you’ve already seen hundreds of memes about this series most of them featuring a character that has come to be known as “Baby Yoda”. This adorable little green creature is the same species as the Yoda character from the original Star Wars series. Unfortunately George Lucas never did tell us the name of the species of this iconic character. In this series he is only referred to as “the child” but immediately the Internet has dubbed him “Baby Yoda” even though the original Yoda is already dead at this point in the timeline of the Star Wars universe.

While Baby Yoda is central to the 10 episode plot of this series, it really is about the journey of the title character. Mandalorians are a race of fierce warriors who have a rich history throughout the Star Wars novels and especially the various Star Wars animated TV series. Our title character, often referred to as Mando is played by Pedro Pascal who is most known for playing Oberyn Martell in “Game of Thrones” and 30 episodes of the Netflix series “Narcos“. He is, as many of his people are, a bounty hunter and mercenary. He is given an assignment to retrieve dead or alive (preferably alive) an unknown subject. All he knows is that he is 50 years old and he has a tracking device which can locate the subject.

When he finally battles his way into a compound to retrieve the subject, he discovers it’s an infant Yoda like character. Star Wars fans know that when we met the original Yoda he was 900 years old. So a 50-year-old infant is not out of the question given what little we know about the species. Being duty-bound to fulfill his mission, he turns the child over to the client magnificently played by documentary filmmaker Warner Herzog. After turning over the child and fulfilling his contract, he begins to worry about what their intentions are for the creature and decides to steal the child back again to rescue it from whatever nefarious purposes the client might have. This sets off a whole wave of consequences in which his Mandalorian friends have to help him escape at the expense of revealing their secret hideaway. The entire rest of the series chronicles their journey to try to escape a horde of bounty hunters who are trying to retrieve the child.

Along the way we have a number of notable guest stars such as Nick Nolte who voices a CGI character that marginally resembles him named Kuiil. In later episodes we see Giancarlo Esposito as an imperial officer named Moff Gideon, Amy Sedaris as a spaceship mechanic and Ming-Na Wen as an assassin. Gina Carano also appears in three episodes as a former rebel soldier who accompanies the Mandalorian on a couple of missions.

Each episode is approximately 30 minutes and includes a great mixture of action and story. The Baby Yoda character is undeniably so cute he is irresistible but is not just about his cuteness. The real story is the personal journey of the Mandalorian who is trying to make his way in the universe and protect his new adopted charge Baby Yoda. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Mando is not a native Mandalorian but is a so-called foundling who was adopted as a child by Mandalorian warriors. That helps explain his empathy for the child who is caught up in circumstances not of his own making.

I suppose if you’d never seen any Star Wars, you could enjoy this on its own as an action-adventure sci-fi series. But the real fun comes from all of the references to the original Star Wars stories and even deeper and more obscure Easter Egg references to the extended Star Wars universe especially the animated series which gives you much of the back story of the Mandalorian people. Along the way we visit Luke’s home planet of Tatooine including Moss Eisley spaceport and a familiar booth in a familiar cantina. A plethora of classic Star Wars characters including sand people and Jawas make appearances. There is a hilarious scene in one of the later episodes where a couple of storm trooper scouts are killing time by taking target practice and famously missing horribly. They are portrayed by Adam Pally and Jason Sudeikis.

As the title of this review suggests this is the best Star Wars we’ve seen since “The Empire Strikes Back“. All of the characters, not just Baby Yoda, are interesting and have memorable moments. The action sequences and special effects are state-of-the-art and worthy of theatrical film. Because these are essentially new characters, the fans don’t have a backlog of expectations about what they want to see so they have been free to enjoy the series on its own merits. The show has already been renewed for a second season and I suppose the fan fiction writers are already hard at work trying to guess what’s going to happen and unless it meets their predictions they are going to be disappointed. That’s a shame because such practices have destroyed the latest Star Wars films. Expectations about what the fans want to see have been so high that when they aren’t met exactly, the fans rebel as if they owned the franchise. Perhaps this new series will inspire fans to just sit back and enjoy it and not try to impose their own expectations on the plot lines or characters. It also helps that creator/writer/showrunner Jon Favreau has done a wonderful job extending the Star Wars universe to these new characters while maintaining a deep reverence for the rich traditions of everything that has come before.

I’m giving it a strong rating of “I Really like It” and it is recommended for any fans of action-adventure, sci-fi whether or not you have a deep knowledge of the Star Wars franchise.

Overall the Disney+ platform may be the most cost-effective streaming subscription service because it includes not only the entire Star Wars catalog but the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the entire Disney and Pixar catalogs. At just $6.99 a month or $69.99 per year it is quite reasonably priced. There is also an option to bundle Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for just $12.99 per month which is a significant savings for what it would cost to subscribe to those individually. A number of Disney+ films and series are planned. We’ve already got the “live-action” version of “Lady and the Tramp” and more Star Wars series are in the works as well as season 2 of “The Mandalorian”. So there’s a lot to like here. By the way none of my reviews are sponsored by anyone and the opinions expressed are entirely my own.

“For All Mankind” is almost worth subscribing to Apple TV+

I barely have time to write reviews of new broadcast TV shows so I rarely write reviews of shows on streaming networks. But there has been such a lack of interesting new shows on broadcast that I need to point out a couple of really interesting series recently released on streaming. (See my recent blog “Is Broadcast TV Dead?“)

We are going to start off with a new offering on Apple TV+ titled “For All Mankind“. It’s a bit of alternate history sci-fi about what might’ve happened if the Soviet Union had landed on the moon before us. In real history, once we had made it to the moon first, the US visited the moon 6 times but with nothing left to prove, the space race was over and decades later we still haven’t been back. But in this alternate history, the space race continued.

The series is created and produced by Ronald D. Moore who is most known for the reboot version of Battlestar GalacticaClick and the romantic time travel series Outlander as well as several Star Trek series and films.

Our main characters are fictional astronauts and their families but most of the other characters in the series are based on the real life people who worked on the space program. Fictional Astronaut Edward Baldwin is played by Joel Kinnaman who has been in a variety of TV shows but is most known for playing detective Holder in “The Killing“. We also have astronaut Gordo Stevens played by Michael Dorman, a NASA engineer Margo Madsen played by Wrenn Schmidt and a memorable performance by Chris Bauer as real-life NASA astronaut/manager Deke Slayton. Colm Feore appears in three episodes as former German rocket scientist Warner von Braun who oversaw the design and construction of the Saturn V moon rocket. You can click on the names in this or any of my other entertainment blogs to see their resumes on IMDb.com. I won’t bother mentioning their many roles.

Before writing this review I have seen all 10 episodes and I’m pleased to report that it is already renewed for season 2. There are going to be some minor plot spoilers in the rest of this but I don’t think it will ruin your viewing. After the Russians landed on the moon one month ahead of Apollo 11, the US goes ahead and sends Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon as planned. But I will spoil the story this much to say that this mission doesn’t go exactly as smoothly as history’s real Apollo 11. The series also covers Apollo 12 but makes no mention of the accident suffered by real-life Apollo 13. There is a time jump in the series and from that point forward all of the missions are fictional.

As mentioned before, the story follows the continuing space race between the US and the Soviet Union. It now becomes a race to build a permanent moon base. On one of the missions, water is discovered in the permanent dark areas of Shackleton crater near the Moon’s south pole. In real life, water wasn’t discovered there until a few years ago when satellite reconnaissance detected the presence of frozen water. This early discovery makes a permanent moon base feasible and both countries race to build a moon base on the edge of this crater some distance apart from each other.

The Soviets also get one up on us by landing the first woman on the moon paralleling the true life events where they put the first woman in orbit years before we did. In this alternate history, we respond by rapidly recruiting and training a group of female astronauts and several of the episodes through the middle of the season forward deal with that story. Not only does the series deal with women’s issues it also touches on LGBT themes. It dramatically illustrates the way such issues were dealt with or not dealt with in the 70s and 80s. We get a glimpse of the political background of this alternate history which has some interesting twists and turns as well. The world these characters live in feels very real. An excellent bit of alternate world building on the part of the show’s creators and writers.

The writing is excellent. The acting is wonderful. The drama is compelling. There are surprises and tragedies that will break your heart. I will warn you don’t watch episode 9 unless you are prepared to watch the finale episode 10 immediately following.

I have to admit a bias because I grew up in the Apollo era and have always been a spaceflight enthusiast. But I don’t think that you have to be a space history buff or a spaceflight enthusiast to really enjoy this series.

For the most part the science is reasonably accurate. There are a couple of places near the end where I thought they glossed over a couple of issues for the sake of keeping the story moving. However I found much less of what I call “plot driven technology” then I find in many sci-fi series. I should mention that the special-effects are excellent as well for a TV series. Also a big tip of the hat to the set decorators. On the wall of one of the astronaut’s homes there is a wall decoration identical to one that has been hanging in my living room since the early 1970s.

I was fortunate enough to get a free subscription to Apple TV+ when I purchased my new iPhone 11. There are at least 2 other series available on Apple TV+ that are worth checking out.One of them is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series titled “See” starring Aquaman star Jason Momoa which I will review soon here. And a drama series called “The Morning Show” starring Jennifer Aniston which I have not yet seen but which earned a number of Golden Globe nominations. Ultimately whether or not it’s worth the subscription price to you is something you alone will have to decide. Overall Apple TV+ does not have a huge catalog of programming. There are less than a dozen original series but I suppose it will grow over time.

I’m giving this a strong recommendation of “I Really like It“. If you do have access to Apple TV+ this is something you should definitely check out. Really quality stuff with more to come next season.

“The Cool Kids” is “The Golden Girls” For a New Generation

In 1985 audiences learned just how funny getting old could be with the hit sitcom “The Golden Girls” which ran for seven seasons. The formula was to put a bunch of veteran comedic actors together and let them shine at what they do best. It’s quite possible that the new Fox sitcom “The Cool Kids” could easily have been called “The Golden Boys” if not for the fact that one of the four actors is female. In my opinion it has the potential to be just as successful as “The Golden Girls”.

The show takes place in a retirement home where our main characters occupy the best table in the dining room. The show opens with our main characters discussing the fact that one of their number their friend Larry has just passed away. They become very defensive about who can occupy his seat. They are compared to “the cool kids” at a high school lunchroom where only a select few get to sit with them.

The cast is made up of sitcom royalty. First of all we have Charlie played by Martin Mull who has played a number of memorable characters in supporting or guest during roles for decades. Although he claims he had to audition for the part it is clear that the writers have custom tailored it to his personality. Basically he’s playing the same quirky, offbeat character he always plays. There are constant references to bizarre things he has done in his past. If you’ve seen him before and enjoyed his performances this will be very familiar territory.

Next we have comedy veteran David Allen Greer as Hank. He’s most noted for his work on the sketch comedy show “In Living Color” from 1990-2001. He has had many other sitcom roles and guest starring appearances. He most recently appeared as the father in “The Carmichael Show” which ran for three seasons from 2015-2017.

Next we have Sid played by Leslie Jordan. You will recognize him as the diminutive flamboyant gay character Beverly Leslie who has appeared on many episodes of “Will & Grace“. Although the character name is different, it’s the same over-the-top gay character he is known for playing.

The newcomer to the cool kids table replacing the recently deceased friend Larry is Vicki Lawrence as Margaret. It’s a bit ironic that she is most known for her elderly character Thelma ‘Mama’ Crowley Harper which originated on “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1967 and later in her own spinoff show “Mama’s Family“. For that character which she played at a young age she wore for prosthetic makeup to age her. Now at age 69 she’s playing an elderly character however Margaret is very much unlike her grumpy iconic Mama. Margaret is spry, funny, and very much likable. In the opening episode she has to earn her way into the empty seat at the cool kids table.

Although constantly played for laughs, the show is dealing with the rather serious issues facing everyone late in life as we wrestle with our own mortality and the loss of dear friends. At times it does become poignant and deal with the topics seriously. This of course is in extreme sharp contrast to the rather sad and tearjerking new series “A Million Little Things” (reviewed here) which also deals with friends who have lost one of their number and the consequences of dealing with it. So if you want to laugh in the face of death or wallow in its sadness you get a choice between these two shows.

Like many sitcoms, at times this one is silly and ridiculous but that’s what sitcoms are supposed to be. My ultimate test of any sitcom is “Did it make me laugh?” And this one had me in stitches several times. You immediately understand who these characters are and appreciate them quickly. The chemistry between them is phenomenal. If audiences find this show I’m confident it can be a big hit.

I’m giving this a strong rating of “I really like it” and I suggest you check it out.

J.K. Simmons Makes “Counterpart” Irresistible and Compelling

Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons is starring in a new sci-fi thriller called “Counterpart” on the premium Starz network. After just one episode I’m completely hooked and can’t wait to see where it goes. Even if you’re not a sci-fi fan, Simmons performance is already reason enough to check out the show.

He plays Howard Silk who is a rather timid bureaucrat who works for some UN agency in Germany. We aren’t really sure exactly what it is that he does. Part of his job involves going into a highly secured room where he faces another man behind a glass plate. They read some sort of coded messages back and forth between one another. At one point he notices the other man has a spot of food on his tie and points it out to him. Silk is later reprimanded by his bosses for having unapproved communication with the other man. The entire thing is very mysterious and enigmatic.

Silk is hoping that he has been approved for promotion but is highly disappointed when he finds out he has yet again been passed over despite his nearly 30 years of service to the agency.

We see that when he is not at work he spends all of his time at the hospital visiting his wife who has been in a coma for six weeks after a traffic accident. Each day he brings her fresh flowers and also drops off one flower at the nurse’s station in gratitude for their care. He spends time reading to her in hopes that she will awaken. He is visited by his brother-in-law with whom he obviously has an adversarial relationship. Her family wants her moved to London and to bar him from having anything to do with her continued care. The brother-in-law leaves him a power of attorney to sign but Silk refuses to sign it.

His world gets turned upside down when he is called into a meeting the topic of which he has no clue. In this meeting he is shocked to meet Howard Silk… a man who seems to be an exact duplicate of himself although with a completely different personality. While Silk 1 is a very timid, mild-mannered, dowdy kind of person, Silk 2 is confident, self-assured, in charge of everything that is going on around him. Silk 2 is from “the other side” although Silk 1 has no idea what that means. Apparently Silk 2 has important information that he is willing to trade. But he will need the help of Silk 1 to carry out his mission.

Silk 1 is totally clueless about the entire situation. Eventually it is explained to him and to us that approximately 30 years ago, East German scientists were performing some sort of secret experiment in the basement of this building. They ended up creating a passageway between our world and a parallel universe in which everything was 100% identical. However in the 30 years since that event, the history of the two worlds has diverged in significant ways. Silk 2 has been very ambitious and has worked his way up through the ranks of the agency to become a kind of diplomatic courier who has permission to travel between the two worlds carrying diplomatic pouches.

Silk 2 has uncovered a plot that there is an assassin from world 2 who has traveled to world 1 with a hit list of people that she plans to kill. One of them is Silk’s wife. Silk 2 tells Silk 1 that in his world, his wife 2 died of cancer two years ago. The rest of the first episode involves setting up a trap at the hospital to try to catch this assassin. Silk 2 takes the place of Silk 1 after hospital visit and although he is coached by Silk 1, important details were left out of the daily routine and the plan goes awry.

The significant differences between both Silk characters and the way that Simmons so distinctly portrays their personalities is compelling viewing. He is completely believable as both the mild-mannered bureaucrat and the hardened, action oriented superspy. The mystery surrounding these parallel worlds, the history behind this bizarre situation, and the conspiracy theories about what’s really going on are all very compelling as well. I can’t wait to see what happens next. There are 10 episodes scheduled this season and was green lit for 2 seasons from the very beginning. One of the frustrating things you find about such series when they appear on broadcast networks is that if they don’t find an immediate audience, the series can get canceled after just a few episodes. You are left hanging with lots of unresolved plot issues. It’s encouraging that the network made a commitment to 2 complete seasons from the very start.

This series gets a very strong “I like it” on my rating system. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans. Suggested viewing for anyone who enjoys good acting and mysterious storytelling.

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams is everything we expect from PKD

I barely have time to keep up with broadcast and cable TV shows so I don’t take the opportunity very often to review a streaming show. But Amazon Prime’s new sci-fi anthology series “Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams” looked so appealing I had to check it out. If the name Philip K Dick isn’t familiar to you, his works most certainly are. Among the films and TV shows based on his work are Blade Runner, The Man in the High Castle, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, A Scanner Darkly, Screamers, and Total Recall.

Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on his short stories. There are 10 episodes of the first season available on Amazon Prime now. The series is produced by Sony Pictures Television and originally aired in the UK on Channel 4. Amazon is just the US distributor and not really a producer. So far I’ve just seen the first episode titled “The Hood Maker”. I’ve not read the short story that is the basis of this episode but I can tell you very much that had I not known it was based on one of his stories I would’ve compared it to his work. It’s very much into the tone and content that we expect from this sci-fi icon who sadly passed away in 1982.

The story takes place in a near future with low technology. According to a synopsis online, humanity’s only mechanism for long-distance communication are mutant telepaths. As though it is clear these mutant telepaths known as “Teeps” are the center of the story, I did not really understand their role in society as described in this online summary. The episode opens with a group of protesters marching through the streets and alleyways of a slum. Hiding just out of sight are a group of riot police and some other plainclothes police officers accompanied by a strange woman with a scar across her eye. It soon becomes apparent that she is a telepath who is reading the minds of the protesters. She trying to discover if they are dangerous or not. She dismisses some of them as harmless but eventually points out a few that could be troublemakers. Then one of the protesters senses that his mind is being read and the protesters takeoff and charge the storm troopers creating a riot.

One of the protesters is wearing a hooded mask and takes off running. The detective chases him down and arrests him. It’s only halfway through the riot that we realize that the protesters are protesting the telepaths and the fact that their private thoughts are being invaded.

We later learned that this female telepath named Honor is working with the detective Agent Ross as a part of a pilot program to make use of her abilities in their investigations. We aren’t really sure what it is that the Agent is looking for or what his particular law enforcement department is in charge of. But we get the sense that this is a bit of a police state. There is apparently law that permits telepath abilities to be used on criminal suspects because she interrogates the suspect mentally. He tries desperately to resist but she manages to get information out of him about other people and his cell of the resistance group. The agent remarks to her “you raped him pretty good there.” She explained she had to push hard because he was resisting so much.

We eventually find out that the hood he was wearing is capable of blocking out telepathic signals. The hoods start popping up in various places and so the quest is on to find out who is producing and distributing them.

Without revealing the entire story we can tell you that there is sort of a three way tension going on between the government investigators, the rebel protesters, and the Teeps themselves. The Teeps are being treated as second-class citizens who live in a ghetto like environment and are exploited in a variety of ways. We also find Agent Ross and telepath Honor falling into a relationship that eventually finds them sleeping together. Ross is played by Richard Madden you may remember best as Robb Stark from Game of Thrones. Honor is played by Holliday Granger who played Bonnie Parker in the 2013 TV miniseries Bonnie & Clyde as well as Lucretia Borgia in the Showtime series The Borgias.

In this episode less than one hour long they do a great job of exploring very difficult themes of trust, privacy, and the rights of individuals versus an authoritarian government. There are couple of plot twists that I won’t spoil but I reveal that there is a bit of a twist just to say how well-written and deeply layered and nuanced this entire story is in a very short amount of time. The screenplay was written by Matthew Graham who is known for writing for the TV series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes as well as three Doctor Who episodes and the TV miniseries Childhood’s End.

The production quality is excellent. The world they have created feels like a low-tech version of the slum areas in Blade Runner. Considering that is also a PKD world it’s no surprise it feels familiar. Also the theme that everything isn’t exactly what it seems to be is very much in line with the typical PKD story. He likes to play with the ideas of perception versus reality.

If this episode is any indication of the quality of the remaining 9 episodes then this is a real treat for those who love sci-fi that makes you think and doesn’t pull any punches on social commentary. If you’re looking for mindless space opera then this is not for you. But if you aren’t afraid to think and have your mind expanded a little bit then this is a definite must-see. I’m giving it a strong rating of “I really like it”.

Star Trek Discovery Is Worthy but Is It Worth It?

It was 51 years ago that the original Star Trek series premiered on TV. Since then we have had 4 other TV versions of Star Trek and over a dozen movies. So one has to ask do we really need another TV series in this franchise. After seeing the first two episodes of the new Star Trek: Discovery, I think the answer is a definitive yes. Well… Maybe it’s not so much that we need it but we can definitively say that it now that it is here, it is a very welcome and worthy addition to the long-running franchise.

Although it is a bit early to tell, it appears that for the first time the central character of a Star Trek series is not going to be the captain. Our central figure is Cmdr. Michael Burnham, an African-American female human played by Sonequa Martin-Green whose previous credits include 8 episodes of The Good Wife, 7 episodes of Once Upon A Time and most notably 69 episodes of The Walking Dead. In the opening scenes one might guess that she was a Vulcan. She’s wearing a hooded costume on a desert planet so you can’t see her ears. She is speaking in very logical, precise, Vulcan-like manner. Throughout the opening episodes however we find out that Burnham is a human whose parents were killed in a Klingon attack. She was raised on Vulcan as the ward of none other than Sarek who is, as all Star Trek fans know, the father of Spock. In this version Sarek wonderfully played by James Frain.

Not only is Sarek her adoptive father and adult mentor, they also share a long-distance telepathic link courtesy of a special mind meld during a near-death experience when she was a child. Throughout the opening episodes she communicates with him either by subspace radio or by this telepathic link wherein he advises her on her current situations.

We also have flashbacks that show her first days in Starfleet wherein she appears to be even more Vulcan-like then she is in the current time period. Speaking of time period, this series takes place just 10 years prior to the events of the original Kirk/Spock/McCoy original series.

During the first two episodes Cmdr. Burnham is assigned as first officer of the USS Shenzhou which is captained by Capt. Georgirou portrayed by guest star Michelle Yeoh. The fact that she is listed in the opening credits as a special guest star is your first clue that she isn’t going to be around for very long. We will try to avoid too many spoilers and not tell you exactly what happens.

The only other major character we get to know in the first two episodes is Saru played by Doug Jones who is accustomed to playing aliens in fullface makeup. He was recently seen as Cochise in the alien invasion series Falling Skies. Jones by the way grew up in Indianapolis, attended Bishop Chartard High School and Ball State University. In this show he is the science officer and is constantly cautioning the captain to play it safe. At first he comes across as cowardly but later we learn why his background makes him so overly cautious. He explains that humans live on a planet that has a food chain with humans at the top but on his planet everything is either exclusively predator or prey. His species was always the prey. They were essentially bred to be eaten. Their entire life was based on the idea that they were destined to die. However in the second episode when the only option available was to fight, he is not hesitant to help the crew plan the attack on the Klingons. Essentially his character is constantly in a fight or flight situation and while he often chooses flight over fight, when all else fails he is definitely up to the task of fighting.

Given the unique background of Cmdr. Burnham being a Vulcan-raised human and the unusual back story of science officer Saur there appear to be rich opportunities for great storytelling in future episodes.

Again trying not to provide too many spoilers, Cmdr. Burnham will not be serving on the USS Shenzhou in future episodes. She will be transferred to the USS Discovery under the command of Capt. Gabriel Lorca played by Jason Isaacs. He did not appear in the first two episodes. You may recall seeing him in the one season USA Network series Dig.

Essentially the show is going to do a bit of a reboot after these first two episodes so it’s a little bit difficult to know what the actual series is going to be like.

The storytelling is definitely up to excellent Star Trek standards and is a worthy successor to previous versions of the franchise.

The set design, props, and most of all CGI special effects are way beyond what we would come to expect from a Star Trek TV series or any TV series for that matter. The opening scene on an alien planet is so far beyond the kind of alien planet environments that we saw in the original series 50 years ago that it makes the old show looked totally ridiculous. One of the criticisms of this new show is that the sets are so detailed and technical that they seem out of place in the canon of Star Trek stories as a prequel to the original series. The critics accuse Star Trek Discovery of being noncanonical as if it is using technology that didn’t exist in the original series. I don’t find a problem with that. In the first two episodes I didn’t see any real technology that seemed out of place in a ten-year prequel. Just because they spent more money designing the sets and props and the CGI is so far superior to anything that we were capable of creating with practical models 50 years ago doesn’t mean that we violated any continuity. At least that’s my opinion.

The other major deviation from previous incarnations of Star Trek is a complete redesign of the Klingon race. Click here for a video showing the differences. We’re told that the Klingon consist of various tribes or houses that have been split from one another and that part of the plot of the opening episodes is an attempt to reunite the Klingon race. Each of the various tribes seems to have a different facial structure. All of them have fullface head makeups not just the traditional Worf-like forehead piece or the even more minimal Klingon makeups from the original series. That lack of continuity doesn’t bother me but it may bother some people.

A quick browse through YouTube reviews have been mostly negative because people are saying “it betrays 50 years of Star Trek” but that so-called betrayal is only continuity issues such as the redesign Klingons. I’ve not seen any negative reviews that really answer the question is it contrary to the heart of Star Trek. I don’t think it is. So if you don’t like the continuity errors, don’t collect a prequel. Call it a re-imagination. The JJ Abrams Star Trek films get away with changing things because of a alternate timeline excuse. Even though this series doesn’t have that gimmick excuse, I still think people should judge it on its own merits as good sci-fi entertainment and if it has the same level of quality we expect from Star Trek. One negative review described it as “Game of Thrones” in outer space. Pardon me but I’ve got no problem with that.

Overall everything that we’ve seen the way of special effects over these opening episodes makes it look very much on par with a current theatrical movie and far beyond what we normally see on a weekly TV series. They are definitely putting in a lot of money into special-effects on this show. Now it may be that they blew their entire CGI budget on these opening episodes to get you hooked and the quality may deteriorate in future episodes. We will have to wait and see.

One of the disappointing parts of the show, this may seem trivial, was the opening title sequence. The new theme song seems Star Trek worthy with lots of audible references to previous themes and it even concludes with a few bars of the original Alexander Courage theme song. However the graphics are completely uninteresting. They are animated set of technical drawings and some other strange animation. I would’ve rather seen a traditional Star Trek opening sequence with the spaceship flying through space. See for yourself in this YouTube video.

I recommend you check out other videos from the Star Trek YouTube channel for more behind-the-scenes info about series.

https://www.youtube.com/user/startrek/

The biggest problem with Star Trek Discovery is its availability. While the opening episode was broadcast on CBS network, it left you with a cliffhanger. Episode 2 and the remaining episodes which will appear weekly are only available using a subscription paid service called CBS All Access. Outside the US where CBS All Access is not available, the show is airing via Netflix. I don’t know if it’s possible to use a VPN to spoof Netflix into thinking you are outside the US. If it were available on Netflix everywhere then it would definitely be worth it to subscribe to Netflix because of all of the other things that you would get along with it.

The real question is if it is worth it to subscribe to CBS All Access just to get Star Trek Discovery. Of course after the airing of this first episode, subscriptions of the new service increased phenomenally as was expected. In some ways we have to presume the entire creation of this new series is just a gimmick to get people to sign up for the new subscription service. As of right now, the only other original programming available on CBS All Access is the reboot of “The Good Wife” as a show called “The Good Fight” staring all of the original cast and characters except for Julianna Margulies. The first season of “The Good Fight” already streamed late last year and was an excellent series especially if you are a fan of the original “The Good Wife”. Although there are new original series in the works for CBS All Access, currently these two shows are the only original programming and everything else is reruns at archives of CBS programming.

While I imagine diehard Star Trek fans will find it worth it to sign up for CBS All Access just to watch the new series, the irony is that the average Star Trek fan probably has the technical skills necessary to acquire the series from bootleg sources without having to pay for it. Until and unless something more compelling than Star Trek Discovery and The Good Fight are available on CBS All Access is available, I doubt that the average TV watcher will bother to subscribe.

Meanwhile Star Trek fans will definitely want to see this new series and they will watch it by whatever means available whether that is from legitimate subscriptions or other methods.

For now I’m rating it “I really like it”.

By the way it occurred to me that the initials of this series are “STD”. It took everything I had not too title this review “STD is infectious” 🙂

The Orville Works as both Sci-fi and Comedy

Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi comedy “The Orville” has been described as either an homage or a spoof of Star Trek. However he insists it’s really its own show and although it draws heavily on Star Trek genre it should be considered on its own merits. Having seen the opening episode I think all of the above is true. It is part spoof, part parody, part homage and a legitimate sci-fi adventure in and of itself.

If we set aside the issues of Star Trek connections and just judge it on its own merits as a sci-fi adventure and a comedy I think after one episode I have to say it works on both levels. It really is a decent sci-fi adventure show with a reasonably credible sci-fi plot. It also made me laugh really hard several times even if it is at times over-the-top silly.

MacFarlane plays Capt. Ed Mercer who in the opening of the show finds his wife in bed with a blue skinned alien. We fast-forward one year to find him down on his luck and depressed over the failure of his marriage. However Adm. Halsey played by guest star Victor Garber tells him he’s being given command of a mid-level exploratory shape called the Orville. Apparently there are 3000 ships in the fleet and they are little shorthanded for captains so despite the fact that he’s been a basic screwup over the past year they are giving him a shot at redemption despite his recent troubles.

Unfortunately his dream assignment turns into a nightmare when he finds out that his first officer is going to be his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki.

His best friend Gordon Malloy played by ER veteran Scott Grimes is going to be his new helmsman who is supposedly the proverbial “best pilot in a galaxy” but is also a ne’er-do-well alcoholic. We are also introduced into a variety of other alien crewmembers such as his petite female security chief Alara Kitan played by Halston Sage whose size hides the fact that she grew up on a planet with much heavier gravity and so exhibits superhuman strength. We also have a Worf-like character named Bortus played by Peter Macon who you might recognize as Dominique’s police officer father from Shameless.

One surprise bit of casting is Penny Johnson Jerald as the ship’s medical officer Dr. Claire Finn. You will remember her as Capt. Gates from the detective/romance show Castle. It’s a little bit hard to imagine her in a comedy but the character she’s playing seems to be very straightlaced so it might work after all. She does however have some genre credit because she played Kasidy Yates on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

As a sci-fi show the opening plot was actually not too bad. Their first mission is a resupply mission the scientific colony but when they arrive they find out that they aren’t really there to resupply but are to guard a new piece of technology that can speed up time. While it has peaceful uses such as making crops grow quicker it can also be used as a weapon by making your enemy age 100 years in a few seconds. The alien enemy race the Krill are after technology. There is an outer space battle and a ground attack that provides lots of action.

The show also works as a comedy mostly by humanizing the crew in ways that traditional Star Trek type shows do not. For example 2 crewmembers meet in a hallway and one of them asks “Do you have a minute we can talk?” And the other replies “I only have a minute… I’m on my way to pee.” It calls to mind the strange fact that after decades worth of Star Trek we’ve never had anyone talk about taking a leak. In another scene the navigator asked the captain if it’s okay for to keep a drink and his console. The captain agrees as long as he keeps his under the desk and doesn’t spill it on anything. Later in the middle of a tense moment we see the navigator sucking on a Slurpie.

The humor isn’t really so much jokes or funny situations as it is breaking your expectations of what a space adventure is like. In another scene the captain needs to stall the attacking alien while they try to repair the ship and so he engages in a debate with his ex-wife/first officer over there marital problems and they asked the alien commander’s advice. It’s all pretty silly but for some reason it works.

Despite what I’ve said about this not being a Star Trek spoof there are plenty of Star Trek influences everywhere. The design of the bridge echoes features of Star Trek: The Next Generation as does the orchestral soundtrack. On the other hand it breaks some Star Trek conventions such as one-shot that shows an extremely long hallway that had to be done with some sort of optical effects. Traditional Star Trek and other sci-fi spaceship based adventures rely on short corridors or curved corridors to minimize the size of the set. So in some ways is not so much what is similar to Star Trek that makes this show interesting. It’s the ways in which it is different. But you have to be a fan of the original to see and appreciate the differences.

They have ordered 13 episodes and I don’t know if there options to extend it to a full season if it’s a hit or if it’s intended from the beginning to be a limited series. Time will tell whether or not the silliness gets to be too silly and whether or not the hard-core sci-fi aspects continue to hold up episode after episode. For now I’m giving it a rating of “I really like it”. I recommend you check it out for yourself. It might provide an alternative to the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery which will only be available through the streaming subscription service CBS All Access. The first episode of The Orville is available on demand. Episode 2 is next Sunday and then it moved to its regular timeslot on Thursday nights beginning September 21.