Friday, 13 October 2017

Roman Connections: The Official Starships Collection Bonus Edition USS Aventine

Just as we’ve got over the excitement and loveliness of the USS Titan, Eaglemoss land us with a second starship from the Star Trek Expanded Universe with the stunning, slimline USS Aventine.

Purely a creation of the literary universe both this and the Titan have enchanted collectors in the last month or so and although she’s one of the smallest creations to come out of the fabled blue box and plastic packaging, NCC-82602 is a killer. 

One thing that’s apparent from the off is the size of this replica. She’s not much different in weight and size to the equally slim-lined Sovereign Class but while that was a cluttered mess of detail to some extent, the Vesta Class USS Aventine is a much more planned and less frantic result. 

As always, let’s start at the top and work our way aft and down. 

For once it’s a Federation starship that avoids the standard two tone grey colour palette instead opting for three main colours. There’s a duck egg blue azteced in with a light blue grey for the majority of the two hulls and engines yet there is a rather striking black arrow that cuts a swathe down the centre of the saucer. It’s a dynamic paint scheme that isn’t evident on any other Federation starship and it makes a bold statement but isn’t out of place. What makes a difference to the overloaded Sovereign Class is that the aztec colour shades don’t contrast sharply and the introduction of the third only helps to alleviate the number of colour changes in such a small space. 

Similar to Voyager in form and using tech that the smaller ship brought back from the Delta Quadrant, the Aventine is named after one of the seven hills surrounding Rome. It has that distinctive forward sensor platform at the front of the primary hull (like Voyager) that sits just in front of the tiny ship registry. Take a close look at that upper hull surface though and you’ll be amazed at the detail - teeny recessed lifeboat hatches, pinpoint painted phaser strips. There is just so much colour and surface variation just on the saucer and that’s not even mentioning that Eaglemoss have managed to include a lot of almost invisible white window markings around those phaser strips and towards the back of the upper hull.

At the rear there’s a similar landing strip for shuttles as to the one on the back of the USS Titan. The colour scheme of the two blue shades covers everything to this point with the strip markings cutting a clear line on the hull.  What impressed me here is that Eaglemoss have really finely detailed the Aventine and it looks glorious. The initial shock of the size is easily overcome with the attention this craft has received in its final form. 

The secondary hull benefits from the 24th Century Starfleet policy of ‘no neck’ becoming more of a rear extension to the saucer. Unusually its the belly of the ship and not the upper saucer that's metal and that might be the main reason it looks so much better up top; the plastic affords much more flexibility when it comes to detail.

That underside is just as meticulously detailed with the full aztec print covering the hull and only broken by another black central section.  Now if you refer to the magazine, the different colours reflect different densities of armour so you have to assume that the black sections around the bridge and you would suspect the quantum slipstream drive/engineering must be the most dense. Close inspection does show these dark sections to be around critical systems.

As with the top, there are the RCS thrusters in yellow marked around the saucer plus more lifeboat detail and very tiny ship registry. The main and only downside to this stunner is the stupid blot painted main deflector. Its just a blob of blue and really stands out as an infuriating touch when you take into consideration the larger picture and the stunning paintwork that has been afforded to the rest of the Aventine. It also omits the metalwork section which fits across the bottom and spears to the centre; it's just a damn ugly blemish for such a great ship. For note the deflector seems to be a plastic insert into the lower metal hull which is a very unusual Eaglemoss feature.

The precision on the rest of the paintwork, deflector aside continues out onto the warp engine pylons which bear not only the fine lines of dorsal and ventral phaser banks but also some very well finished impulse engines. The finish on the Aventine really is incredible given the size and to have phaser banks, engines and lifeboat hatches marked out this well is unprecedented. The windows are aligned and out on the warp engines themselves the venting panels are absolutely identical on both. The side grilles are missing completely but with her being so small it really would be nothing more than a fine line which, if you wanted, you could fill out with a felt tip pen and a steady hand!

Stand fitting for her is a comfy grip around the saucer impulse engines with a slight tilt forward to glide her into place. It's a standard amidships pose for the Aventine but she looks mighty fine even with such a thin profile - just be sure to put her towards the front of your shelves or you might lose her...!

In the Aventine magazine we have three sections all focused on this literary starship. First and foremost and very useful for those collectors who don't dive into the novels, is a section devoted to the "in universe" life of the ship from its development as a testbed for quantum slipstream tech as well as experiemental weapons and that thickened armour. Following on from this extremely short section are six pages dedicated to digital artist Mark Rademaker and the work that he put in to develop the Aventine after he'd produced the USS Spirit for the Ships of the Line calendar series. 

Mark had his work cut out to produce a ship that - as we see here - is the same size as the Enterprise-E and was required for the cover art of the Destiny book series. This is a great and in depth piece tracing the origins of the Aventine from concept through sketch and into the digital realm, even noting that there might have been some further changes had Mark known it would be around as long as it has been!

Finally we have Imagining the USS Aventine which tells the story of the Vesta Class starship from the perspective of the man who introduced it, David Mack. Originally just intended as a ship for the Destiny trilogy, the Aventine turned out to be a popular addition to Star Trek and is still speeding around the galaxy nearly a decade later. 

The USS Aventine is a fantastic model and the magazine with it is just as impressive, adding a lot of very useful background and a lot of information that you just won't see in the Encyclopedia - in fact you're only ever going to get a glimpse on Memory Beta. Very, very happy with this one and I'm sticking it right next to the Enterprise-E as a fine example of how Eaglemoss can produce a quality starship on a very small scale. Top marks (but make it a bit bigger next time huh?!).

Fan of the Aventine? Which other starships from the expanded universe should make the bonus editions?

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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Bring Your Pet to Work Day: S1 E4 The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

It’s Burnham’s first day back in the uniform following Lorca’s ‘request’ for her to join the crew of Discovery.

As first days go it’s probably run of the mill when it comes to Starfleet, dealing with Saru whose nose is well and truly out of joint since he expected her to be on a shuttle to prison, helping to fight off Klingons oh - and there’s the small matter of That Creature in Lorca’s menagerie.

As it turns out it’s not really a menagerie but more his War Study containing brutal weapons from numerous cultures as he studies the core of warfare. Is it correct to call him a warmonger? No, because at the centre of it Lorca is attempting to END the war rather than make it last. His work might take him to the very extremes of what might be acceptable but in his heart this guy is just looking for a way to restore the peace - or at least that’s what it looks like four episodes in. 

Certainly here we get to see Lorca as the military commander whether it’s running a battle drill or taking the Discovery into atmospheric combat to save a Federation mining colony and it’s evident where his real skills lie. Discovery is perhaps not the ideal warship for him when it comes to a bristling arsenal and instead he has a crew of scientists however he’s working with what he has and some of that is going to come in very handy. His choice to play the transmissions from Corvan II is a controversial moment in the episode. Very out of kilter with anything Star Trek before but keeping with the character of Lorca. He wants to elicit some sort of emotional reaction from his crew, to hone these scientists into the fighting machine they may well have to become due to the rather handy abilities of the Discovery. Cruel to be kind? Absolutely because a softer touch could see everyone dead.

It’s hard to review this episode and not discuss the spore drive. Somehow for fifty years of Star Trek this technology has remained totally hidden, classified and buried out of reach of us mere mortal fans (!) but it’s one heck of a plot device and makes the show very unique. Pretty much the Discovery can be anywhere it needs to be in a blink of an eye thanks to the wonders of Lieutenant Stamets work and also Burnham’s logical reasoning which brings in a familiar face from episode three (I say face but...). 

The effect of the Discovery going to Black Alert (stealth running) followed by the activation of the drive is beautiful. As Stamets notes, the Discovery is built around the spore drive technology and it’s evident in the very fabric of the ship with the rotating saucer discs and the space folding maelstrom. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the pilots from Dune when you think about just what’s going on here. I absolutely expect fans of the franchise to have issues with the spore drive but it makes the show even more interesting and exciting. It’s something different and unique to this piece of the universe and while it’s still in the experimental stages it’s surely going to be used more and more advantageously.

Stamets continues to be brilliantly watchable in his opposition and uncomfortable relationship with Lorca. The dislike for each other is ever more evident while they are abiding each other as part of their work. He is much more the engineer in this episode and whereas Scotty would have jumped to solve every problem, Stamets weighs in with a much more negative reaction to anything Lorca throws his way. Ironically the two are equally cold and devoid of outward emotional displays making them, here, more alike than they might want to admit. 

The story to defend the Corvan II mining colony merely acts as the vehicle to demonstrate the wonders of the spore drive and Burnham’s ability to see past the tardigrade’s vicious behaviour to its more peaceful nature and the way in which it forms a symbiotic relationship with the engine powering spores. 

Further to that there’s the parallel Klingon plot. Having spent six months drifting near the binary stars morale as well as food supplies are running horribly low. With T’Kuvma dead and Georgiou apparently the main course, we are left with Voq, a Klingon of no name and the Torchbearer/heir apparent and L’Rell, House battle commander, left in charge. 

As the pair debate whether raiding the abandoned USS Shenzhou is against what T’Kuvma would have wished, we see Kol from House Kor making his moves in the background. Subtle at first but eventually with devastating consequences. As T’Kuvma’s apparent successor, Vow remains highly optimistic that the answer will just appear and ensure that his people Remain Klingon. Problem is that that is easier than it seems. His partnership with L’Rell looks to be turning into something else with her mentoring and advising the younger, outcast Klingon while at the same time there may well be a more personal partnership coming to fruition. 

As we leave the pair its fairly cemented that they will be back to try and regain control of the 25th House which Kor seems to have bribed to follow his lead. Seeing the Shenzhou again is fantastic. It seems its all CG but we have the bridge and Georgiou’s ready room frozen in time plus there's a stunning shot of the adrift Walker Class ship with all its lifeboat doors open, left to the vacuum of space. Have to say I'm loving how these story parts are tying back together, even to the extent that Michelle Yeoh gets a special guest star credit and to the final moments of the episode and Burnham’s begrudging acceptance of her former captain’s last will and testament which will surely have made uncomfortable listening for the disgraced Starfleet officer.

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry doesn't answer a lot of the bigger picture however it manages to expand on the learnings and introductions from Context is for Kings. One noticeable difference storywise is that Discovery is going for a bigger epic feel and as yet avoiding telling stories about the individual characters much outside of Michael Burnham. In the ‘old days’ we might have had a Picard episode or a Bashir story but now with Discovery there seems to be a simple format akin to the first couple of series of The Next Generation and is more situational. The war is clearly the backdrop and here we begin to see Burnham caught up in matters that she would rather leave behind. Apart from the unsurprisingly short-lived Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma), does anyone on this ship actually like Lorca? Is he turning into the most disliked character in-universe? I'd take a punt that the answer to that is a resolute yes. I think he's great!

This is a solid episode that manages to balanced two narratives with both sharing the limelight. The Discovery’s story does end with a slightly cheesy line from a saved child and its very out of flavour for the show but ill try to ignore it - with difficulty. The Klingon story shows immense potential and how this will eventually dovetail into the main plot can only be cataclysmic by the end of the season. I think, L’Rell is one to one and Mary Chieffo has an excellent character to work with who is using all the skills available to her to manipulate her position seemingly as you would expect from someone who was partially brought up in House Mokai.

The lack of individual character development to allow greater plot exposure and focus on Burnham might be Discovery’s failing when there are such wonderful characters as Airiam (Sarah Mitich), Saru and Lorca on the ship who at times are genuinely confined to background roles. Visually a solid and perfect addition to Star Trek however the script really needs to embrace its people more than the CG monsters in the cupboard to truly keep me satisfied.

Enjoyed this review? Then please share!

What were your thoughts on episode four?

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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Black Alert: S1 E3 Context is for Kings

When is a pilot not a pilot?

When it’s episode three of Star Trek Discovery and we’re only just getting aboard the synonymous ship.

Taking up the story six months after the events of The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars, Context is the King finds Michael Burnham clapped in irons and on a prison transfer. A cosmic storm later and she and her fellow prisoners are stepping out onto the deck of the USS Discovery with its array of weirdness, secrecy and diverse personalities on view right from the second the bay doors open and Commander Landry walks in.

Context is for Kings feels like we’ve been watching this story evolve. The transition from Shenzhou to Discovery feels natural although the actual transfer of Burnham might have been intentional. 

This episode is just as dark as the previous two and begins to take the series in very different direction to anything you have experienced with Star Trek before. The atmosphere in this show tingles with energy and intrigue from the first moment but there’s also a palpable sense that this is fundamentally NOT the Star Trek of Picard, Janeway or even Sisko in his more brooding episodes. As with The Vulcan Hello, this feels real and the interactions between the characters feels real because they are allowed to experience conflict.

That allowance creates both the most opportunity and yet goes drastically against Gene Roddenberry, almost as much as Burnham ZIPPING up her jacket. Oh my, you can hear the keyboards tapping away now.

Discovery, while stated in observation, is a new ship, there’s already a lot going on and very little is explained here. We see guards around the ship armed with phaser rifles and bearing a black Starfleet badge as well as delving into the mysteries of the engineering labs and their work on spore-type life.

Context is for Kings is almost devoid of Klingon intrusion as an opposite from the previous days, focusing purely on this new crew and starship. 

Cadet Sylvia Tilly is the big kid in all of us. The wide eyed excited newbie out there for the first time. Probably a huge allegory for the viewer experiencing Discovery but such a great inclusion and one that does add a lighter touch to a show that at times is very dark. Her phobias aside, Tilly is looking to Burnham as a chance to further her knowledge and career while everyone else has cast her aside. These two are a classic Trek odd pairing with one being the emotional hub and Burnham the voice of logic and calm. Might Tilly's character also betray a hint of autistic tendancies? Could this be the first role in Star Trek to address those kinds of personal challenges? 

Then there’s Saru. The character has come on in new ways during the six months since the battle at the binary stars with the Kelpien moving to command and being Lorca’s first officer. His relationship with Burnham is nothing short of uncomfortable and even here the conflict we have never seen in the franchise before is bubbling at the surface. His comment about protecting his captain is sharply barbed almost putting his former superior officer in her place yet he is more than willing to speak in her defence when asked by his new captain if she is suitable for an away mission. I think this is a survival instinct that Saru knows which side to fall on to stay safe. 

Everybody seems to treat Burnham with some sort of disdain in Context is for Kings because of her dubious recent past and it’s both out of place and refreshing for Star Trek to do this. It feels more honest and respectful to the viewer that life isn’t always as perfect and utopian as The Next Generation might have portrayed it for example. In fact the last time I recall some kind of human/human conflict or edge in that show was when the Starfleet officer who defected to the Romulans returned in Face of the Enemy

Lieutenant Paul Stamets carries a lot of that negativity around. While Saru is slightly aloof, Stamets is a more abrasive officer who demands performance and the best from his team. He clearly doesn’t take any s**t and nor is he afraid to stand his ground when he (pretty much always) thinks he’s right. His relationship with the captain is strained for very good reason and will continue to be due to his history with Starfleet.

Stamets doesn’t hold back either and while it’s not a case of his mouth overrunning his mind as with Tilly, he seems almost vindictive or bullish in his approach to Burnham in particular.  The key to all this seems to be that Stamets and Straal (he’s on the USS Glenn were co-opted into ‘your (Lorca’s) Starfleet” to divert their research for the war effort which suggests he’s not originally one of the fold. It also worryingly paints Starfleet in a darker light than ever before and lays a strong case for the show that it is promoting the organisation as a rather shady military group rather than one more dedicated to seeking out new life.

Then there’s Commander Landry played by Rekha Sharma. Sadly only guest cast which doesn’t bode too well for her survival(!) but I could be wrong. She makes Worf look like a pussy cat within seconds, even allowing a fight to break out in the mess hall and later appearing to have darker loyalties to Lorca than might be healthy. Landry might not get a lot of screen time but her character traits are very well defined by the time she is on screen. 

Finally let’s talk about Lorca. Jeez, this guy is like no other Star Trek captain ever and I don’t just mean because he’s not the main character in the show or because of his fondness for fortune cookies. Lorca starts off mysterious, travels into authoritarian realms, steps by warlord and then surprises us all at the end with a few twists to the plot. Lorca is portrayed as the stern disciplinarian in the way he has a standing desk in his ready room to the way in which he heads off opposition head on in every situation. 

He's a military commander running a science vessel in a war so you know there's going to be more in the background. a taste of Encounter at Farpoint Picard. There'll never be any kids on this guy's starship. Certainly Lorca is the most multifacted captain in Star Trek history although by the end of the episode you might be questioning your own opinions of him too.In some respects you can see echoes of the In the Pale Moonlight Sisko breaking through with all that under the radar activity but Ben doesn't give you the chill this guy does.

Context is for Kings is a bit of a sleeper start but by the closing credits you know full well that everything you've seen is going to be significant be it the amazing spore drive through to Landry's unquestioning loyalty or Lorca's menagerie. Anyone else wondering what the significance of the lone - and you would hope - neutered Tribble might be? 

We don't get to see a ton of shots of the new USS Discovery although I feel conflicted between why it has such a low registry of NCC-1031 and yet is clearly a brand spanking new ship. What other secrets are lurking behind its guarded doors? Is it Section 31? The opening shot as it saves the shuttle from destruction is very grandiose with the ship bathed in a glowing blue light from the tractor beam. Yep, she's arrived and we get to have a good walk round from the shuttle bay to crew quarters and the bridge.

Going over to the very cheap to replicate (and more advanced) sister ship of the USS Glenn offers an away mission and some surprises in Klingon and animal form but you get the sense that Stamets work and that of his counterpart on the doomed starship are going to have a massive effect on the show. Watch out for some nifty Easter Eggs when Lorca introduces Burnham to the effect of the spores as we view familiar alien worlds, some named and some not in a room that reminded me a whole lot of the reactor chamber from The Wrath of Khan.

The Discovery sets are pretty cool and techie with flashy touchscreen and heads up displays all round. It is of course not dissimilar to the Shenzhou since that was converted into the Crossfield Class starship that would be the series mainstay. Also nice to see - as we did in the pilot and I didn’t mention - that ships aren’t all shown flying on or meeting on the same plain of flight. The crippled Glenn is approached from below with the ship seemingly listing (all dependant on the perspective of course). This is superb thinking from the CG team and adds yet another layer to the show. 

In some respects the story isn't quite up to last week's epic opener but it's purpose is dramatically different. Instead of setting up Burnham's backstory it's designed to introduce us to a whole new set of characters who are immediately more developed than the "background" crew we encountered in The Vulcan Hello. Quick note of the inclusion of Emily Coutts as the battle-injured Keyla Detmer from the helm of the Shenzhou who snubs Burnham during her walk through the mess hall.

It's also here to start up a lot of plot threads - the intrigue of Lorca, the mystery of what precisely is going on aboard Discovery, what other elements of Burnham’s past are going to turn up (well, we know Amanda will be)...and probably more. I think everything we are seeing has a purpose in the show in some way. 

Context is for Kings is an effective welcome mat to Discovery but I still think that this show has more to come. I enjoyed the episode and the greater chance to explore the people as well as ramp up the interpersonal conflicts to 11. The acting was notably better with Martin-Green really playing a wide range of emotions from apparently withdrawn and defeated when death looks inevitable to selflessly proactive in helping her away team colleagues escape the Glenn’s only remaining living inhabitant.

Final note - the mention of Amanda and her son... who didn’t get a slight chill when Burnham mentioned that?!! Sure to be another point for some negative feedback! 

Don’t get me wrong, Discovery has got lots of little bits that aren’t quite Star Trek that was but we have to be realistic that it has to fit this decade and will take on learnings from the Kelvin Timeline. Can we really judge from three episodes? In some respects yes because it hasn’t yet attempted much beyond a war story and that’s disappointing but we only have 48 mins of the ‘proper’ ship and crew - let’s hold on judgement a little longer but it does need to be careful just how militaristic it is intending to be.

Are you happy with the direction of Context is for Kings? Is it staying true to Star Trek?

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