Thursday, 26 November 2015

The End: The Finality of Deep Space Nine Season Seven

After the excitement, action, adventure, character building and general all out war, season seven of Deep Space Nine had a lot to live up to.

Shame is that it followed the greatest season of Star Trek ever produced which meant it was on the back foot to start with and, honestly, it never recovered. Season seven is still brilliant and a fitting way for Deep Space Nine to end with a true closure of the multiple arcs that had run through the show since Emissary but it would be a heavy trip to the finale.

Opening with the two-part continuation to Tears of the Prophets from season six, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols take us to the heart of Sisko's dilemmas as visions, a stabbing and the return of Dax all happen within the space of 45 minutes - and then we get a yomp across the desert planet of Tyree and a spin off into the world of Benny Russell just to top it all off. As season openers go it's low on the bangs and effects but ticks the box for edge and sparkling story whether it's the Sisko line or effectively the alternate A-story with Kira holding the fort on the station with the Romulan Empire trying to assert its position.

The revelation that Sisko's mum was a prophet might get him on Jerry Springer in the 20th Century but for some reason it's not that hard to believe thanks to the arcs and threads woven through the previous six seasons of the show. It's a good one with a very different feel most likely due to those scenes on the desert planet. 

The thing is that introducing a new character in Ezri this late in the game was always going to be difficult but Afterimage does go some way to fill in the new Trill beyond a bout of space sickness and a badly fumbled, hasty joining. Garak is clearly the stronger character in the odd pairing but it's great to see the inexperience and exuberance of the new arrival attempt to take on the super-enigma of the Cardassian tailor/spy. Ezri is a great character but the series doesn't insist on spending a ridiculous amount of time introducing her and focusing on her as Voyager lavished on Seven of Nine. 

Instead we just get on with things. Take Me Out to the Holosuite is a cunningly little diversion from the upcoming finale, divulging us into the possibilities of the holodeck and also exploring those competitive tendancies that exist within Sisko. Facing him off against Captain Solok is a high point of the year and he might be the most unemotional Vulcan we've ever met - and that's saying something. 

Season seven does avoid the family thread that The Next Generation chose to weave in its final year but it does manage to tie up all those bits we've wondered "what happened to..." and Chrysalis is a perfect example. Following on from the introduction of the Jack Pack from Statistical Probabilities it's much more about the relationship between Bashir and Sabrina once she reconnects with the world. In the literary Star Trek universe this pairing is still going strong today (at least it was in the last Section 31 novel, Disavowed).

Likewise the later Prodigal Daughter rounds out the "Bilby" storyline from season six's Honor Among Thieves with O'Brien's involvement with the Orion Syndicate taking another turn as he tries to track down his former, deceased associate's wife. Simple enough but then this is Star Trek which also means it somehow manages to link up with Ezri's unsurprisingly dysfunctional family. Oddly this is an O'Brien episode where he's not in some sort of severe mortal peril and manages to survive dying at least once which makes it a good year for the chief but not so brilliant for the story quality.

Ezri does get one final solus episode in season seven with Field of Fire. It's something very different but draws on Dax's darkest rebirth using Joran to help catch a killer. Not being directed to the guilty party from the beginning is a hard call in the story but finding him isn't what this is about. The gun is pretty cool and the way in which the killings are taking place is cleverly executed. Joran's effect on Ezri's personality is fairly marked and Nicole De Boer puts in a fine performance here. 

While season seven rounds out stories it just manages to hit the mark on brilliance. Treachery, Faith and the Great River and Once More Unto the Breach which follow it really encapsulate a lot of the best and worst of the year. Both are effective follow-ups and round outs to stories, the former giving us a more insightful look at the background and origins of the Vorta while the latter closes off the "Kor Trilogy" which has taken us through Blood Oath and The Sword of Kahless to this point. Both have original, unique stories but somehow the greatness that was instilled into the sixth season just isn't quite there. 

Jeffrey Combs is superb as the faulty Weyoun defector and it does manage to also explore Odo's feelings about his connection to the Great Link and where he really stands with his people and those who regard them as deities. In a sense Chimera also touches on that aspect with JG Hertzler heavily disguised as Laas a Changeling with a far more advanced use of its shape-changing abilities. Laas is a much softer character for the Martok actor to play and I don't think he's 100% successful at it. Nor is the story a winner with Odo having to battle with his conscience and the ideals of his people all over again. It's a path that's been trodden numerous times especially since season three's The Search.

Perhaps it's expectation lets them down and even now I still feel a bit deflated watching this season - because I have some very clear recollections of these stories, because I'm just bidding time until the ten-parter and thirdly because I just know it's not totally delivering. Looking at it another way there is a lot that needs to be tied up and there may well have only certain manners in which this could be done and still leave enough to provide a decent final dash to the line with the closing arc but more on that in a bit.

Covenant too is a sequel of sorts although if it was necessary I'm never totally sure. It does follow on from Empok Nor and reminds us of the many talents of Dukat but it doesn't seem to give anything at the end and reflecting on the later episodes and how the former Cardassian gul is portrayed I'm not sure that this exposure was required. It does mean that Kira gets one last chance to go head to head with him and who can scoff at any opportunity to see Visitor and Alaimo sparring once more.

Continuing the sequel and closure aspect of season seven is the atrocious Emperor's New Cloak. Now Resurrection last year was poor and Bareil tended to leave me cold on a good day but this one is my low point of the whole season and one of the lowest of the show as a whole. The Mirror Universe was a brilliant addition to the Deep Space Nine mythology and made it feel a lot closer to The Original Series than The Next Generation thanks as well to those classic Klingons and a magnificent 30th anniversary episode. Yet once we'd closed the show on Shattered Mirror and taken a season break from the adventures of Smiley and the Terran rebellion it all seemed to take a slide didn't it?

Making this a Ferengi Mirror Universe episode frankly took the p**s. Sorry, yes I swore but there's no excuse for this one and having Vic Fontaine turn up was butt-clenchingly awful and shocker, Ezri appeared too. All a bit convenient and self-indulgent. I bet Avery Brooks was glad he'd been killed off over there after Crossover.

But then there are some stunners that kick where it matters. The mid-year eps are a bit average yet The Siege of AR-558 is brilliant. Dark, uncomfortable and horribly close to the bone in its portrayal of ground war it contrasts starkly with the space-bourne warfare we're usually accustomed to. Nor the Battle to the Strong in season five had shown the aftermath of a ground battle but here we see the beginning, middle and end in all its gory detail with It's Only a Paper Moon two stories later dealing with the fallout as only Deep Space Nine can. While these two can make uncomfortable viewing they highlight the show at its finest and I can never imagine The Next Generation and certainly not Voyager ever attempting to deal with such events and then have the balls to tackle it again all within the space of a few episodes of the final year. Kudos where due, a great move.

Another hat-tip has to be made to Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges or, "In Times of War the Law Falls Silent". With the benefit of hindsight you can see where the Section 31/Bashir arcs have evolved from because this is Julian playing the spy game for real. He's indulged in holodeck adventures as a secret agent but the reality is nearly as bleak as The Siege of AR-558. Adding in the Romulans just teases the excellence of the episode and having it all turn a bit sour for the doctor is a nice move - again as with It's Only a Paper Moon, only Deep Space Nine could have nailed it this well.

Which brings us, triumphantly to the final spread of episodes encompassing all from Penumbra through to What You Leave Behind. And what an arc that is. It seems that everyone gets their fair share of action here so let's head on through.

Starting out with Worf missing and Ezri determined to find him leads us into the revelation that the Breen are now allied with the Dominion which then narks off Legate Damar who finally sees that the writing is on the wall, makes it clear he's going rogue and leads to the formation of the Cardassian terrorist group and a visit from Kira, Odo and Garak. Of course there are two memories we all carry from this line of the story - Damar's "For Cardassia!!!" and Colonel Kira getting herself a Starfleet field commission.

Back on the station Sisko gets married and discovers he's going to be a dad and then leads the fleet to the Cardassian homeworld where the war is put to rest and Martok gets to sup some blood wine. Sadly that's not the end of the road because as we know, Dukat has been wooing Kai Winn and turned her, successfully, over to the Pah Wraiths. Cue ultimate showdown between Sisko and Dukat and the captain's apparent demise as he enters the Celestial Temple.

Jeez. That was the briefest summation of all time. Now I adore the final ten episodes of Deep Space Nine like no other multi-episode arc. It is still unrivalled in Star Trek history in terms of scope, continuation, finality, characterisation and overall damn greatness. The 10 part arc does everything you could expect and more - even to a point where I felt disappointed by What You Leave Behind... because it was so final. I love what the novels have done since 1999 however the show is a perfect bottle, a beginning, an end and one heck of a middle. Look at what is achieved here and you realise how much had gone into the seven seasons and how the producers ensured that the viewers were paid off as best as possible and as fully as possible. 

Rom becomes Nagus, Bashir and O'Brien nigh on cose down Section 31 and Garak gets to go home. Even a couple of straggly bits from The Next Generation were closed (Gowron!) but the pace never slowed and there was still character evolution to the bitter end especially around the brilliant roles of Kai Winn, Odo and Dumar who all take big steps within the overall story here.

I have no doubt I will cover off the arc in more detail in a separate pot in the future because a season overview is the last place I'll do it any justice but here are some of Deep Space Nine's strongest stories, its most inspired moments and heartbreaking goodbyes. All even better a second, third or fourth time round. This was the first time I've watched it all the way through from Emissary and certainly you do appreciate the box-ticking closure that Deep Space Nine attempts in season seven a lot more than either The Next Generation or Voyager managed effectively.

For everything it got right or wrong though, season seven of Deep Space Nine is the strongest and most concrete ending to any Star Trek series ever. There is nowhere left to go, the character arcs are resolved and we have a firm conclusion to 176 episodes both with the 10 episode arc and the double-length finale.

So that's it for Deep Space Nine. I'll leave the season one Voyager review over to Matt but I'll return shortly with my look at the second year of Janeway and crew in a short while.

Fan of the final season? Was it the best closing year of any Star Trek show?

Sunday, 22 November 2015

A True Classic Returns: The Official Starships Collection Issues 60 and 61

It's only the third ship we've seen from The Original Series but without question the SS Botany Bay is going to please a lot of fans.

Marking 60 issues of the series, the aging DY-100 freighter "lost in space from the year 1996" is perhaps as legendary as the original USS Enterprise of the Kirk era. One of the few starships built for the '60's show, it marked the arrival of one of Star Trek's greatest villains, Khan Noonien Singh (and not that one from Into Darkness).

So in my mind the image I had of this one was a plain, grey design with minimal detail as per the ship we saw (or think we saw) in Space Seed. Now fortunately the Eaglemoss team have avoided pimping her out to the level that we saw in the remastered episodes from a few years ago so there aren't any multiple panelling tones, a tanning of the hull or an excess of fiddly details. What we have here is a close reproduction of the original in all it's grey glory.

The length of the hull (to the top of the rear fins) as well as the top of the cargo pods is rendered in metal while the pods and the rear stabilisers are in the less weighty plastic. The basic colour is that one-tone grey with some of the upper hull panels highlighted in a darker grey but that's as far as colouring goes and it's a massive contrast against the Norway Class we'll come to shortly. Aside from the colouring the only other detailing that does exist on the Botany Bay is the name tag just beneath the submarine-esque conning tower.

The underside is particularly sparce on detail; no darker greys, no marking, no, well, anything to be fair. It's probably the easiest "bottom" review of all time (please no jokes) but that's not the real winner here. The overall weathering effect is exemplary, more-so coming so close to the equally well-weathered USS Kelvin special. The effect of nearly three centuries of space dust and debris has been well captured on the model on every surface and makes up for that spartan undercarriage very easily. 

One thing I was disappointed about on my model which might not be on all those produced was the fitting of the pods to their metallic lid piece. There's a bit of a gap between the two sections which is noticeable as is the space between the tail-fin section and its metallic top section. That's also the point where the stand clips in and it's very sturdy considering it's rear-clipping position that slides around three little raised hull blips. Nice fit, good position and well held so no worries of collision with this one.

What I do suspect is that there could be a second version of this one made in the future (Ben Robinson, take note) to replicate the remastered version which is featured equally as prominently in the magazine. The colour scheme and detailing is different enough that I think fans would jump to have a second freighter highlighting the change in technology between the model and the CG. 

The magazine is pretty good too. Acting as a companion more to the Khan story than the ship itself we do have the usual opening section exploring ship features, the story of the Botany Bay and Space Seed itself before launching into an excellent design section and then finally the evolution of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the origins of the landmark movie. One note I do have is that the plan views included here seem to be a mash-up of the CG and original versions of the Botany Bay so we have a brown colouring with minimal detailing - I think it would have been better to keep the images aligned with the model rather than the wonders of 21st Century computer tech. Also, the choice of the image for the back cover is lacking this time. Better to have picked a top view?

Our next ship from The Original Series will be the Antares and to date these original ships are turning out to be a revelation. The USS Enterprise was more hit than miss but still looks damn fine. The Bird-of-Prey was amazing and this third arrival has firmed up my belief that these are just as exciting to receive as the ships from Enterprise. Just an FYI to all collectors if you've not already looked, the ISS Enterprise from Mirror, Mirror is now in the Eaglemoss shop. Priced £9.99 just be aware that the addition of postage will bump it up to at least £12.94 if you don't select same day dispatch.

OK so onto the last of the First Contact Alex Yaeger-designed ships, the Norway Class USS Budapest. As fans will know it's the only one of the four designs from the movie that doesn't appear anywhere else because the CG model was corrupted at sometime after production. As things go this makes the ship a real Star Trek rarity due to its lone appearance but that hasn't meant any less attention to detail on the 61st model in the series.

For note the model of the Botany Bay actually appeared more times on screen (as the Woden in The Ultimate Computer) but that was reused footage so they both only made one proper turn on the screen. I wasn't looking forward to the Norway Class that much and I recall that Ben Robinson said this was his least favourite of the four and I can't see why because it's potentially the most impressive of them all.

As surface detail goes it's almost on overload. Every inch of the surface has something to look at, to examine and to take in and we mean every single inch. The metal versus plastic unity means only the engines and underside of the saucer/wedge are in the lighter material but the two work really well here and are fitted very snuggly. The wedge top could do with a little more definition around the escape pods and the Voyager-esque recess at the front but it does carry the hull panel lining and some well-defined windows. My only other dislike is the lack of detail on the (tiny) deflector dish buried in the centre of the primary hull. 

That very hull also bears a two-tone scheme of grey and a green/grey/yellow in certain parts. We do have the thrusters and the phaser banks clearly marked and at the centre, protected by the "claws" of the engineering hull, the tiny bridge module. I almost overlooked it on first glance because it's so well hidden but look even more closely and you'll spot that the windows of the observation lounge have been painted in.

There's also two impulse engines to the rear of the wedge, painted rather than translucent however but the real top detail here is on the underside of that primary hull. With an interesting concave curve, two hidden shuttle-bays and a surface which reveals a lot of hidden intricacies on the medium cruiser. 

I've said a few times that this underside detail has been neglected and that there are only a few where it's truly on par but here it's the best bit of the whole ship and wonderfully recreated. The markings on that underside are crisp, well defined and give it a very unique finish that I've not seen on any other Starfleet ship.

Edging out the primary hull through to the raised engineering section and onto the pylons we have some red Starfleet pennants and trimming that extends out onto the pylons and onto the twin warp engines tipped with translucent bussard collectors. Two engines that are precisely parallel and well built I might care to add. Good to see these have been applied straight and true and there's no horrific bubbling or even a slight kink to raise a Vulcan eyebrow in dismay. 

But if you want to have a grumble it has to be the delta symbols on the engines. Take a closer look, compare them to the plan views and you'll spot that two of them are mirrored. Now the plan view has them all the "standard" way if viewed from above or below but if you think about other ships they do point to the front with the thinner leg of the delta to the outer edge. Which is right? I'd say the ship.

That engineering section is small and does lose some panelling definition for the sake of window markings which is a little disappointing given that the rest of the hull maintained the structure lines. I can see that it would have been horribly cluttered with the red trimming as well as those windows so it was probably a good call to make.

Truth be told there's quite a bit of decalling right across the already packed hull surface here whether it's ship registry or just hull marking,  it must have been one of the more difficult to implement in the factory. Just note too that there's no ship registry on the top of the wedge. The only identification of it being the Budapest comes from the dual names and numbers on the pylons, the two names on the underside of the hull and the large registry which sits, unusually, within a darker arc of hull plating to the front of the ship. 

Comparing to the plan views the ship is damn close on accuracy with even the port and starboard red/green lights marked out. There are some minor markings on the warp engines missing but they're so insignificant to the overall effect it's barely worth a mention.

Stand positioning is again to the rear and very stable since the clip rests around the metal pylons for the warp engines so no issue of them bending after a few years on display. Actually it's very sturdy indeed given that the warp engines project back and sideways on two struts that sprout away from the main hull. 

The magazine offers zero surprises in the way of the ship overview and can only ever regurgitate the story of First Contact and some of the details already noted with the other three ships established in that movie. Keeping with that theme the magazine dives into eight pages of costuming which seems very relevant given a recent Titan Books release and it means that First Contact is probably the most detailed live production the collection has covered in 61 issues. Not just by magazine pages either, I think it may be the single production which has provided the most models too. Those pages on the costuming are OK but the book does it at a much higher level of detail.

So bye bye November and two A grade entries. To be fair I wasn't excited by the news of the Norway Class because I already had Steamrunner which is in my top three of all time for starship design. However I've been very pleasantly surprised by the result, perhaps a bit more due to the fact it was seen only once due to a corrupt computer file.

So what's up next? Well for December we'll be seeing the Voth Research Vessel from Voyager's Distant Origin and then back to The Original Series and a ship that may well be unique in the collection as it first properly appeared in The Animated Series and then returned in the remastered Charlie X, the Antares. Given how great those older ships are looking it's definitely the one I'm most interested to see in a month's time.

A good month for the Starships Collection? What do you think?

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Friday, 20 November 2015

Returning Renegades

I was less than glowing in my review of Renegades a couple of months back and it's fair to say I did take a bit of flak from it.

However I seemed to receive more comments agreeing to some degree with what I'd said. The concept is sound,  the cast is superb and the starship effects stunning but there were core problems. The script didn't respect any of the characters' back stories and barely gave any time to the incoming cast to flesh them out. It wasn't well written but there was solid potential.

The good news is that they've just launched the Kickstarter campaign for the second and third episodes of the series plus managed to fill my inbox with a lot of news on improvements and additions for the return of Renegades. Promise? Absolutely and not a trickle of them either.

So let's take a glance at the production team. I was immediately impressed that visual luminary Andy Probert is coming on board to strengthen the backroom team. Probert's work on the movie Enterprise plus the NCC-1701-D is well-known; his original design for the Enterprise-C is legendary.

Second to that, Renegades have also brought in Melinda Snodgrass, story editor for season two and executive script consultant for The Next Generation. Notably Snodgrass was responsible for the script of The Measure of a Man so I can only surmise that bringing her on board is to ensure that the story has a more Star Trek feel to it and is handled by someone who truly understands the franchise and can write for the characters.

But it's in front of the camera that some of the biggest moves have come about as the production looks to raise funds for the second and third episodes. We have some news when it comes to new faces with a whole load of Star Trek alumni vying for screen time. First announced was Terry Farrell (Jadzia), then Robert Beltran (Chakotay), Hanna Hatae (Molly O'Brien) before Cirroc Lofton (Jake Sisko) and finally Aron Eisenberg (Nog). While this gives fans another reason to celebrate just as a new network Star Trek series I have my concerns.

So hark, we have a cast which will be bolstered by the arrival of five solid former cast members returning to their recognised roles from Deep Space Nine and Voyager what's happening to the cast from their recently released pilot? We know that Walter Koenig will be back for his final appearance as Chekov in episode two and will have Tuvok, played by Tim Russ, alongside him once again. Importantly Adrienne Wilkinson's key character as Lexxa Singh will be heading the crew. Gary Graham's Ragnar will be back as will Courtney Peldon's Andorian gal Shree and Corin Nemec's Captain Alvarez. 

But that's it and as it stands Sean Penn, Robert Picardo, Manu Intiraymi, Edward Furlong, Chasty Ballasteros and Larissa Gomes will all be conspicuously absent. Now that's a big cast cull, removing some very under-developed roles and, perhaps, excess stories or more simply letting people out who can't commit to another two adventures. A real disappointment as a couple of those characters deserved more screen-time to explain facets of their personalities and back-stories and it looks like we will be robbed of that opportunity. It also means that Wilkinson and Nemec are the only two actors who have not appeared in canon Star Trek.

Maybe some of them will be back as more news comes our way but if not it does appear that a smaller cast will allow more time to each character and allow a bit more development in place of a messy, packed set up. Certainly bringing Melinda Snodgrass into the production suggests a desire to make the second and third episodes more franchise-loyal than the pilot. Interestingly though both the back-room additions only had an influence on the franchise pre-1990 with Probert departing after the first year of The Next Generation and Snodgrass after the third. That might mean that the storytelling and the feel of the new episodes will be more akin to the early adventures of the NCC-1701-D and potentially more aligned with the standalone nature of The Original Series' episodes than we came to know with Deep Space Nine and more notably later years of Enterprise.

What about those casting announcements? How the new additions are going to be added into a story about, well, renegades, is going to be a puzzle. All I worry is that Nog and Chakotay will end up looking more like "baddies" than characters we will want to support here if they are placed against/chasing the Icarus. How can they be integrated into what is effectively an anti-Federation crew out there doing the things Starfleet can't do? Admiral Chekov's office could be very crowded indeed.

Casting more recognised Star Trek names is a big and very noticeable step which will make it more appealing to fans who may have chosen to avoid the pilot or even disliked it. For those who aren't returning it's a great shame but let's hope their replacements don't receive the same lax treatment especially now there's some original Star Trek writing involvement to steer the future of this web-series. There's a ton of potential here but it needs to be nurtured and directed in a way that might be deemed more "appropriate" for the show.

Over 2000 fans have donated $235,000 to the new episodes with just under two weeks to go to reach the desired $350,000. I think they will reach that goal however after the reaction to the first episode I believe it's going to be a bigger challenge to get these two stories completed and if not, could it be the end of Renegades? Probably not considering what has now been donated after the less than stellar pilot. At least the ball is now rolling but a lot of fans will be filled with trepidation before they even consider dropping a few dollars the way of the new Renegades production after episode one.

I don't have a clue where these new stories will be heading but I firmly believe that with the changes made, the production team have listened to critics and fans alike to ensure that mistakes are not repeated and the next instalments of Renegades will only receive explosively positive reviews. Please.

You can keep up to date with Renegades announcements by checking up on their official website.

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Monday, 16 November 2015

The Overriding Arc: Deep Space Nine Season Six

Season Five ended about as darkly as it possibly could. 

The station was in Dominion hands, Kira, Odo and Jake had stayed behind and Sisko was joining the fleet to take on the Gamma Quadrant's greatest power. So not much to resolve then.

Sensibly this isn't all wrapped up in 44 minutes and the first six episodes create a mini-arc never before seen on the show. It certainly set Deep Space Nine apart to not only conclude the previous season's cliffhanger as always at the beginning of the following year but not to completely resolve it for several weeks. It also meant I was shelling out for the videos every two weeks.

Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals, Sons and Daughters, Behind the Lines, Favor the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels isn't without its faults or the sense of dragging out time to fill but it achieves much given the extended development time. The opening pairing do focus more on the activities of Sisko and the Starfleet officers from the station (accompanied by Garak in place of Worf who is bunking with Martok on the Rotarran) and having them confined to either a tiny starbase, Defiant or the Jem'Hadar ship they captured in The Ship precisely a season before. The fish-out-of-water element was a master-stroke but the six-parter fell a bit flat in it's mid-section with the focus shifting from the Defiant crew to the beginnings of a resistance cell on Terok Nor and the return of Worf's rapidly aging son, Alexander. Seeing his speedy maturation makes me wonder if he might have dropped by Genesis. 

There's a lot of backstory in there as well as the sprinkling of Sisko being removed from the front lines which lasts for all of two episodes before he's back in the command chair of the Defiant preparing to take back the station. Favor the Bold is all about set up, maneuvering the players into their cliffhanger positions ready for the retaking of Deep Space Nine. The sections which do take place on the station I found dragged when highlighting the actions of the Founder and Odo gelling around but Dukat, Weyoun and Dumar were always watchable and the sparring between them here and through the remaining two seasons of episodes were some of the best bits worth waiting for.  The final battle sequence in Sacrifice of Angels and the recapture of the station are some of the show's best space pieces by far - so good that they were reused extensively in What You Leave Behind.  The conclusion is satisfying and I know that it's rated amongst the series best - however I prefer the standoff and double-dealing that takes place in Rocks and Shoals between Sisko and the injured Vorta overseer, Keevan.

Wrapping up the arc almost as a bow on the box is You are Cordially Invited. Notable for the wedding of Worf and Jadzia. And that's it. It's one of those necessary episodes but I never caught the excitement. They got married. Great. Let's move on - which would usually be a good thing to say but we slam straight into one of my all time least liked episodes; Resurrection. Jeez this is awful. I dislike Bareil in the Prime Universe so giving us the mirror version was like pouring salt into a wound. The problem is that Bareil was a drippy character and by this point the originally well-realised Mirror Universe was growing tired and a little too full of character co-incidence. Note - I love Deep Space Nine but this and The Emperor's New Cloak are dire. No argument. Close the case.

The season is abruptly pulled up and returned to form with Statistical Probabilities and the Jack Pack. I once believed these guys to be super-annoying but I loved it this time and the dynamic of the more vocal three members of the group is fantastic. It's easy to see why a season seven sequel happened because they're so good with Jack himself one of Deep Space Nine's most memorable returning characters.

In line with this, Bashir does get some serious meat this season with his next top role coming in the overlooked Inquisition. I say overlooked purely because it's not one that would leap into a "Best of..." list but should be recognised as a classic of the show and I mean for more than the arrival of Sloane and Section 31 an organisation that would reappear in both Enterprise and Star Trek into Darkness. They are the perfect foil for the enhanced physician and coupled with Statistical Probabilities is another episode to create a memorable returning character in the final year. Bashir's story turn might not be to Siddig's liking but it did provide a lot more intrigue and depth to the doctor that I for one welcomed. 

While Bashir got some great moments, season six also carries the best Ferengi episode Deep Space Nine ever did and I regret it took me 20 years to realise that it was such a moment of excellence. Finally they got the balance of comedy and adventure spot on with The Magnificent Ferengi enhanced by a surprise turn by Iggy Pop as a Vorta. There's even death by misdemeanour as Moogi is part of a prisoner exchange on the off-kilter Empok Nor. The script sparkles, Quark and Rom have never been better and dropping in extended family and the ever-magnificent Jeffrey Combs makes this ever watchable. Tragically the other Ferengi episode in season six, Profit and Lace is total bilge of the worst kind. A sex change Quark is not something I ever need to see again - well, at least until the next full run-through in about four years time. 

Kira is the character who gets a noticeable retreat from the front line in season six accounting for Nana Visitor's real-life pregnancy. Always watchable and a highlight of the show, her absence mid-year is glaring but she does have the brilliant highlight of Wrongs Darker than Death or Night. It's one that I've added to my "I totally underrated this episode back in the day" list with it's rapid removal of characters and the eventual one-on-one confrontation that takes place. Nerys and her captor are well-matched - not quite to Marritza levels from Duet but a comfortable top three I would suspect and this one is much more sinister and calculating to the end. Visitor plays her terror on the money here and I would definitely say this is a hidden gem of the year and maybe the series as a whole.

What you do notice about this year and I loved then as much as I do now is the appreciation as a character that Sisko achieves. Kicking off with the good-but-not-Duet episode, Waltz it's a year that totally encapsulated why Avery Brooks was the perfect choice as the station commander. Anything with Brooks facing off against Marc Alaimo is worth 44 minutes of your time and this one is no exception. It's a twist on that Duet formula with the main character here being in the more submissive position and placing it in neutral territory also adds a sense of dangerous loneliness.

Brooks performances in season six only get better though with Far Beyond the Stars close behind and one of the truly format-breaking episodes in Star Trek's history. With the cast fully out of makeup the story directly targets some of the darker aspects of the 20th Century but it is Sisko/Benny Russell that steals the show here and it's easy to forget that there are hints to the larger picture within this brilliant tale all based around the "issue" of a black space station captain. The beating Russell receives at the hands of the two cops played by Alaimo and Jeffrey Combs is truly shocking, more-so being intercut with Weyoun and Dukat delivering the blows. Brooks' delivery of his final speech is just as emotionally hard-hitting as the closing moments of The Visitor. Truly a classic to this day and at this point Far Beyond the Stars was my favourite on the original watch through.

That didn't last for long though since just six episodes later we hit the utterly franchise-shaking, mid-digit waving In the Pale Moonlight. Amazing to look back to years one and two and see that the writers were head-scratching as to how to deal with Sisko yet three years later his character was solidly defined, exciting to watch and brilliantly played by Brooks. 

This episode was a show-stopper with the finest, darkest ending the show ever experienced - indeed he could live with it. The unusual pairing of Sisko/Garak makes this story sparkle as we see the descent towards the point of no return loom ever closer. The added twist that the plan actually fails is quintessential Deep Space Nine proving that life is never the perfect picture that many a The Next Generation episode used to excel at on a weekly basis. There is impact here, there is a price to pay and in some respects it would have been nice to see someone work out - some way down the path - that the Romulans were tricked into believing their ambassador was assassinated by the Dominion. One of the five episodes I've watched the most ever and I never get bored.

O'Brien's annual mangle-run comes from Honor Among Thieves and the first appearance of the oft-mentioned Orion Syndicate. It's OK but the trouble is if you're expecting the levels of Hard Time you'd be disappointed. That's not to say it's bad but it's not quite hitting those heights. Miles' relationship with Bilby is great and would be explored further in season seven's Prodigal Daughter. The O'Brien family story close to the end of the season though is poor in comparison. Never been a fan of Keiko/Molly stories and fortunately this is the only one that ever got made. I'd agree with general opinion that it's one of the series weakest episodes and it isn't helped by season six being one of the strongest batches ever. In another year it might have been average but here it sits firmly below par.

In other news mind there is the shouldn't-work-but-does One Little Ship. It could well have been a terrible episode filled with shoddy effects and a story that might have made us cringe and recall Land of the Giants however by adding in some Alpha and Gamma Jem'Hadar, Sisko hatching a cunning plan and just three of the crew being miniaturised aboard a Runabout it's a concept that works and Deep Space Nine gets away with - I reckon Voyager could have attempted it but could well have failed.

Actually season six did have it's fair share of oddments - Who Mourns for Morn? was a Quark story at heart with some neat double-crossing and a nice selling ploy that it focused on the ever-present (and apparently super-talkative) barfly. Valiant too was a little out of the norm, relying on Jake and Nog to carry the story while also reintroducing us to Red Squad last seen in season four's Paradise Lost. It's a good outing for the pair and I have found that their episodes have been a lot stronger than I remember. That and a lot more enjoyable; Cirroc was underrated I think and that might be because Jake just isn't your typical Star Trek main character and the show is better for this. He offers the other side, the non-establishment opinion and with Valiant it's his perfect soapbox in what is an utterly futile and mindless mission.

However, it is a year best documented for the death of Jadzia Dax.

The Worf/Dax relationship had been gestating since he arrived in The Way of the Warrior with their wedding earlier in season six then followed some time later by the ill-fated away mission in Change of Heart. I wouldn't say it's a standout story of the year, again because of the calibre of episodes that surround it, but it is important in relation to the Worf/Dax dynamic and also to see Sisko take him down a peg or three for his choice of wife over mission.

Tears of the Prophets was highly anticipated but just misses the mark that Call to Arms hit in season five. Marking the turning point in the war with the Dominion and a major victory with some top notch battle sequences, the events on the station do tend to make Sisko's success take a back seat. His choice to take his baseball to Earth and that the season ends on a very downbeat captain peeling potatoes in a back alley is one of the most understated closes of any batch of episodes produced.

Jadzia's death isn't as senseless as Tasha Yar's although being at the hands of Dukat makes it ever so poignant and adds another layer to the structure of the series and the tensions between Sisko and the former Cardassian despot. Also having two episodes back to back involving the death of a Starfleet officer is a little much. I still love it as an episode and it's a fantastic 45 minutes but the element of danger, the unknown is missing which filled every word of Call to Arms. Sisko might be gone but knowing that there was a year left ensured there was no doubt he would be back. Removing the wormhole and reintroducing the Pah-Wraiths meant they were still a force to be reckoned with and certainly one that meant the Dominion weren't the only problem to be solved in the final year.

What were your memories of season six? Was this the best of times for Deep Space Nine? What were the highlights?

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Saturday, 14 November 2015

State of Independence: Lone Starships in Attack Wing

With Wave 19 delayed due to some issue in the US, we've got a barren month when it comes to new Attack Wing expansions.

As it happens I was looking to expand my Independent fleet and added in two older ships to the numbers. Choosing which wasn't too hard as I'd heard some good things about both the Vidiian Fina Prime and the Hirogen Hunter.

The Vidiian ship (Wave 10) is one of the biggest - and ugliest - ships to come out of the game. It's also the only version available currently as the Starships Collection has still to slot it into the running order. It's certainly wide but size isn't everything and it's a shame that having a larger surface area doesn't make it any better than the other expansions. The paint scheme is very blocky, very basic and has an uncharacteristic shine to it that I wouldn't have placed on the Vidiian ship. It's an odd design and there's definitely nothing else like it in the Star Trek universe - and in Attack Wing there's certainly nothing similar in at least a couple of features.

Weighing in with 26 points, the named Fina Prime packs three in attack, two defence, five hull points and three shields with the option to add in two weapon and two crew upgrades. As standard for a lot of Federation ships at least the Vidiian vessel can perform Evade, Target Lock, Scan and Battle Stations as standard actions. The Battle Cruiser unique action will force an opponent at range one to lose a shield token at the price of an auxiliary power token. A nice way to bring those shields down a little quicker and get to the hull. The generic version sacrifices one of those shield points and a crew upgrade to bring the ship point total to 24.

Being a battle cruiser there's a top speed of four but with most options at speeds two and three plus a handy 180 turn that will cost an auxiliary power token. With some of the options here that choice of maneuver over speed is an advantage we'll talk about later.

The Fina Prime pack does disappoint in one way however; it's one of the slimmest we've had in the whole range. There are only two captain options provided and one of those is a generic Vidiian for your Independent faction. The Vidiian Commander will cost four points with a skill of seven and enhances your attacks with the Grappler or the Hypothermic Charge or performing the action on the Boarding Party card. If you're playing any of these features he's a must for your ship, making great upgrades even more usable.

There are four crew alternatives to choose from though bringing back at least one familiar Vidiian from Voyager in the form of Denara Pel. Continuing the trend of the Commander, the ship and some other features, Pel offers close-range benefits with a ship at range one losing a crew upgrade at the cost of the Vidiian. One thing though, if you're grappling then it becomes a disable rather than a discard. Certainly one to use if you're facing a Federation opponent with their crew-heavy craft.

Sulan, who fans will remember from Faces as the Vidiian who captured B'Elanna, is your next crew card. Again his ability is at range one and allows you to discard a crew upgrade on your opponent's ship but if you're using the grapple feature you can also disable another two crew upgrades on that target ship. His increased cost over Pel shows that this is a stronger card but at least here you have the option to spend a bit less for a similar feature in Denara Pel. Third crew selection here is Dereth, a Vidiian taken from Phage in Voyager's first season. An organ harvester in the episode, Dereth operates here as a safeguard feature, allowing you to disable an opponent upgrade should they try and affect any of your upgrades. Nice that it's not a disable or discard card so you can keep on using it as the game progresses.

The Fina Prime expansion definitely conjures up a lot of problems for Federation players with those three crew options alone but the fourth, the more costly Vidiian Boarding Party card action is a killer. It is very situational, meaning that the target ship for this attack must be uncloaked, in range one and have no active shields before you can even think about using it. However it provides a four attack dice roll and for each damage or critical damage hit rolled a crew upgrade gets removed from the target ship. Effectively you could shut a Federation ship down completely in one move. Even worse is that if grappling this can be used as a free action so you can prep if the target ship decides to retaliate (although what with...).

The ship comes with nor has slots for any tech upgrades so you're pretty limited beyond those crew-upgrade-slaughtering crew upgrades to just two weapon options. Hypothermic Charges attacks with the same number of dice as your primary weapon (three) but only operates at range one to two. So why use it? Because it ignores your opponent's shields and goes straight for the hull, potentially providing some much welcomed critical damage to key systems. If there are shields active then the big news is that the attack lets you re-roll any number of dice. No target lock required here but you will need to disable the feature to use it.

To the final card here and the biggest unique point in the set which is Grappler. Again attacking with just the three dice and at that extremely close range one, you need to disable the card to take advantage and if you successfully inflict one hit through a regular attack then you get to lock on. Once this happens, the opponent ship, while it carries the red grapple token, attacks with one less die and defends with one less. It also can't move faster than two but if at the end of the Activation Phase it's moved out of range one to the Vidiian ship then the link is lost. During the Combat Phase the grappled ship can get out of the hold by rolling two damage or critical damage results using the same number of dice it would for a primary attack. Phew. Lot to remember there but quite specific to be able to be able to kick that one off in the first place.

There is a single Elite Action with Fina Prime; Decisive Orders that allows an attack dice re-roll (up to two of them) if your target ship has no active shields. It's a discard for four points so I'd be more tempted to leave it out or look at other options from other Independent ships. The mission here does come from a classic Voyager episode in the form of Deadlock. The Vidiian ship has to start with the Boarding Party card upgrade fitted while the Federation ship has only 35 points to start off with an additional 25 points of upgrades "sideboarded" for the mission. The Vidiians win if they either destroy the Federation ship or get to employ the Boarding Party card successfully. The Federation player wins by destroying its opponent or escaping with three or more mission tokens collected.

Hang on - escape? Yes, because you're in a subspace divergence which either damages the ship or removes an upgrade each round. However all those upgrades off to the side represent the alternate reality ship (just like the ep!) which you can use to help and that comes at the cost of one of your eight mission tokens. If you can escape with at least three still on board then you've successfully negotiated the situation.

The second ship I acquired was the Hirogen Alpha Hunter from Wave 11. A lot smaller model but actually much more impressively detailed given its size. The golden colouring is well done but size does mean that any more precise detailing is lost. The pack is a lot thicker than Fina Prime and the ship more primed for attack and to take more damage than the Vidiian cruiser although its SP is identical at 26. 

Offering four dice in attack, two for defence along with a hull value of three and four shield points, the Hunter carries the standard four actions of Evade, Target Lock, Scan and Battle Stations plus its unique action allows you to perform the Sensor Echo action as a freebie even if not cloaked. On top of that there are two tech, two weapons and a crew slot to fill if you're looking to max her out. 

As with the Vidiian Cruiser the Alpha Hunter can hit a top speed of four and is blessed with a full range of movement at speeds two and three plus that key 180 turn. That's actually the only move that incurs the dreaded auxiliary power token so in comparison to those Vidiians it's not quite as restrictive. If you're choosing the generic ship version it will cost a shield point as usual plus one of your weapon slots for 24 points. Still a slightly better option than the Fina Prime perhaps.

As for captains there are two decent choices alongside the generic Hirogen card. Topping the stats with a skill of eight and a cost of five points is Karr, the commanding Hirogen from Voyager's The Killing Game two-parter. Unusually he offers two Elite Action slots as well as the ability to re-roll two attack dice every time you go into battle. If Karr's skill is higher than the opponent's captain you get to gain an attack die at the beginning of the phase.Truly a stupidly powerful card and one I just have to use even at the cost.

The Alpha Hirogen, represented by the hunter from Prey, allows conversion of a blank into a damage result. He's also able to use an Elite Action with a captain skill of six and a cost of four. With all those Elite Action slots flying around in this pack, WizKids do offer three choices to fill them with. Full Reverse allows you to change your revealed move to a one or two maneuver backwards without incurring an auxiliary power token. It's a cool one to mix up the Activation Phase but it does rely on you second or even third guessing your opponent to make it work. Costing a few more points but again allowing you to change your maneuver and receive a free Battle Stations action should an enemy vessel end up in your forward firing arc after you move. It plays more to the aggressive tendencies of the Hirogen than the retreating Full Reverse

The third and final Elite Action is Stalking Mode and is again a discard. Used as an Action, it reduces an opponent's captain skill by two points and gives you an additional attack dice . While the card might be discarded, the effects last for the duration of the game which will come in very handy and could work well to reduce the potency of an enemy capital ship. A very useful card well worth the five points it'll cost to equip it.

The Alpha Hunter includes just one crew upgrade with Turanj who lets you add another weapon slot to your bar and will allow you to discard your captain card if his/her skill is below four to add in an extra attack dice. Turanj then becomes your captain with a skill of seven. Very unusual feature this one and I don't recall seeing anything similar in the rest of the expansions I've experienced. 

As for weapons, the Hunter packs the usual Photon Torpedoes card utilising a target lock for five attack dice and the conversion of any Battle Station results to critical damage. The second, Subnucleonic Beam, inflicts normal damage but for each hit which is uncancelled you get to disable one of your opponent's crew upgrades. Costing an additional five points if used on a non-Hirogen vessel, it operates at range one to two. Certainly seems that there are a lot of extras in these Independent packs which are there to cause Federation players a whole ton of problems.

Finally thee are two tech upgrades Sensor Network takes its line from Message in a Bottle, letting you take a peek at an opponent's proposed move and then adjusting yours accordingly. Nor can your opponent change their move. Definitely works to help capture your prey or alternatively evade that attack. Last of all there's Monotanium Armor Plating to make sure you stand a half-decent chance of lasting the game. While it doesn't increase your hull or shield value it may stop opponents gaining a target lock if you can roll at least one Evade on two defence dice. It's able to be used everytime someone attempts that action and if they have managed to get a lock on you can disable the card to remove the effect.  Costing three points it's well worth the spend as I find target lock is an often-used feature that kicks you in the teeth over and over either for re-rolls or photons so having a defence against it is an enticing addition.

The Worthy Prey mission included here sees the Hirogen chasing an enemy ship (I'll be using Species 8472 I think) and for each round the Hunter attacks it receives one mission token. If the enemy is destroyed the prey is deemed worthy by rolling a number of dice determined by the amount of mission tokens collected. Deem it not worthy and the Hirogen lose.

OK - so how do these packs really operate? Fairly well. I have yet to really work the Hirogen pack properly but the Fina Prime ship was pretty decent against the Klingons. However, getting into a suitable position to use the Grappler card was near impossible without incurring a vast amount of damage. An Independent fleet definitely gives more variation to your game than with just a "standard" Federation fleet however it's quite an adjustment as I found when I was totalled by that Klingon squadron. What I lose in manoueverability I gain in upgrades and it's a delicate trade-off here. I think I still have some way to go to perfect it and will probably switch out either the Krenim Timeship or the USS Dauntless for the Hirogen Hunter. Trial and error, readers, trial and error!

Fan of the independent faction? Which are the best upgrades Squadron Points can buy? What should I be avoiding? 

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