Thursday, February 26, 2015

The 4400: The Starzl Mutation

The Starzl Mutation (episode 3.9)
Directed by Allison Liddi-Brown
Written by Amy Berg and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brian George,
First aired 6 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess
Next episode: The Gospel According to Collier

When a male hustler is lured to his death, FBI agents Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case for The X-Files.

No wait. I made a slight error. Please allow me a re-take.

When a male hustler is lured to his death, NTAC agents Baldwin and Skouris are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case related to The 4400.

As season three of The 4400 progresses, we find ourselves firmly embedded in X-Files formulae. The opening of episode nine is mysterious as well as creepy, featuring some nice make-up effects. The victim seems to have decomposed overnight. It turns out [spoilers galore] after two more corpses are discovered, that someone is targeting the innocent carriers of the Starzl Mutation. This mutation is extremely rare, isolated to Seattle when it formed as the result of a flawed radiation machine that affected a number of patients at a Seattle hospital, who in turn passed it down to their offspring. The mutation was named after the company that manufactured the radiation machine.

Moreover, we learn that Ryland's new company is developing a branch of military with 4400 abilities via the promicen harvested from Isabelle. The soldier targetting the Starzl victims is hoping to eliminate them since it is believed that if someone with the mutation were to copulate with a 4400 and produce offspring, those children would be, in every instance, promicen-positive. This is a neat way of tying the 4400 to Seattle and to the importance of 2004, when the mutation is in its second generation.

The creating of abilities, however, pretty much ruins my attempt to keep track of the number of remaining 4400s, since they can be produced quite efficiently. Hitman Darren adds one, though his death then removes one. I suppose I can continue with the original members alone, though I'd also continue to include Dr. Burkhoff and Isabelle in the total, since they are more "natural" 4400s.

Along with all this drama the agents are getting closer to discovering that Isabelle is working with Ryland, and he even gives Tom a nice little clue: "Enjoy your nephew's wedding."

The story-line does have a major flaw. What leads our agents to discovering that there is something fishy about the death of Lieutenant Darren Piersahl is fishy itself. The soldier's father tells them that Darren was killed in a helicopter crash that killed six, yet the helicopter that was shot down could only hold a maximum of four. I believe that with so much being invested in such a major secret government plot, the players would have concocted a better story.

The secondary story-line featured is the escalation of the Isabelle threat, and in this episode it's well presented as we examine her union with Shawn from a different angle, removing Isabelle's bratty behaviour in the process. Thanks to the talents of 4400 member Claudio Borghi, who has laced a cigar with his unique ability to allow others to see the future, or at least a possible future, Shawn catches a glimpse of the world if he marries Isabelle, and this short vision transforms him to a daemon-looking Shawn as he strangles father-in-law Richard Tyler to death. (Why Richard doesn't telekinetically toss an object at Shawn is not explained--he cannot toss Shawn as we're informed in the previous episode that his ability only works on inorganic objects.) Yet when he attempts to walk away from the marriage, the future envisioned is one of apocalyptic chaos, and in the previewed moment, he fails to save the life uncle Tommy Baldwin. He confides these visions to Richard, and the two men continue to be deadlocked in their dealings with daughter-fiancee.

Yet a wrench is thrown in with the wonderful final moment: the return of Jordan Collier! I've been waiting for the moment of JC's return, and the show does well in bringing him in at such a fundamental moment. How does his re-appearance help shape the seemingly inescapable bleak future visions? Unfortunately we won't know since, conveniently, Shawn has finished the cigar. I'm certain a call to Borghi would produce another, but I'm also the series won't consider that fact as it might just end the built-up suspense.

"Do you know who I am?"
As in the previous episode, there is a nice Marco moment when he asks Diane about Maia, who responds that she asks about him a lot. A few seconds delivers good character consistency and series continuity.

Borghi is played by familiar character actor Brian George, who is perhaps best recognized as the restaurateur Baby Bhatt in Seinfeld, but also plays Dr. Koothrappali, Raj's father, in Bing Bang Theory, Dr, Bashir's father in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, another doctor in The X-Files, and numerous other projects since the mid-1980s. He's also done a good deal of voice acting, from various DC Comics and diverse video game projects, to Bob Fish in the highly entertaining Bob and Margaret.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess (Episode 3.8)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Neil Hopkins
First aired 30 July 2006
Rating: 8/10

Previous episode: Blink
Next episode: The Starzl Mutation

"My mind is not compromised."

A lengthy abstinence from The 4400 has led me to re-read my latest episode reviews in order to remember what was going on. Surprisingly only a few smaller details had slipped my mind, and impatiently I passed over much of my text (but I did look at the pictures). What surprised me most was that I was actually keeping track of the 4400 numbers, and at last count we were at 4,363 after learning in episode 3.6 that Gary Navarro had killed eight.

So far this third season we had a strong beginning followed by a couple of weak episodes which were highlighted by the welcome exile of human holodeck Alana. I am still most interested in nutty professor Kevin Burkhoff and his promicen experiments, and least interested in Isabelle's bratty whining. In this episode we get more of the former and thankfully very little of the latter.

The Re-animator returns in full misshapen form as the series decides to focus on its more interesting characters. The opening sequence once again recalls X-Files formula, as Burkhoff is kidnapped by shady government types, men in black, and mercilessly shot to death. Of course we'll recall that his fabricated promicen ability is instant healing (though according to him it doesn't always work), so we aren't surprised that his corpse disappears from the back of they shady van. Later we see the bullet holes healing quickly on their own, which presents a problem: the bullets are still inside him. You would think that being shot at such close range would cause the slugs to travel right through the good doctor's body, but there was no evidence whatsoever of this. So perhaps his body simply consumed the bullets altogether.

Along with the return of Kevin B, we are treated with the return of Tess Doerner, the schizophrenic girl from episode "Wake-Up Call" (2.1). There is genuine affection between this two and its nice to see them reunited. However, they shed their innocence from their time at the psychiatric ward and become a powerful pair of renegades, which is a great transformation. The two are experimenting on Diana Skouris, convinced that it is for the betterment of humanity, yet this is glossed over since we never learn by Burkhoff is so convinced of his research (whatever that is) to believe Diana would be among humanity's saviours. Whether brilliant and foresighted or downright mad, I found myself rooting for the pair. Overshadowed by their goals is the union of their abilities. The idea that a brilliant-minded man is nearly invincible with his Wolverine self-healing powers is travelling renegade with a woman with unbelievable hypnotic abilities is a threat of its own. The show did well in revealing Tess's ability by not telling us straight out as it normally does ("my power is..."; "John is a returnee who has the ability to..."), but by simply letting the story unfold and allowing us to catch on as we watch. Still we can wonder at the extent or limitations of her hypnotic ability. This achievement is one of the episode's strength. Believable also in that the unique beauty of Summer Glau is hypnotic on its own.

It's great that such a powerful pairing is kept distant from both the good guys and the bad. Schizophrenics cannot function within the boundaries of constructed society, so it's also appropriate that they are on the lam, Bruce Banner style.

An interesting side-note to Diana's unwilling inclusion in Burkhoff's promicen-injecting experiments is that Maia present Diana with a drawing of her as a monster that visited her in her dreams. It's not just a clue to Burkhoff injecting her with promicen, one of many until the reveal, but also innately suggests that Maia believes members of the 4400 are monsters, and by extension that she herself is a monster. I doubt this was intentional but it is nonetheless there, and would have been an interesting angle to explore, yet I don't believe the show was interested in this idea. At least not at this point.

And in another corner of the 4400 universe... Richard's telekinesis is finally being explored, and it is undoubtedly clear that his special ability was not just his sperm. The neatest moment in this thread is the shot of Richard graduating his target practice from crumpled pieces of paper to kitchen knives, and that moment when a knife is thrown to reveal a photo of Isabelle, followed by a concerned look from daddy Richard. Is this a challenge? A consideration that he might need to end Isabelle's life? The notion that morally straight father Richard Tyler is the one who must take down daemon daughter Isabelle is a great detail, and hopefully we'll be taken down this path. With a romance potentially brewing between Richard and confidante Heather Toby, perhaps she and her ability will play a role in this hoped-for sequence.

Isabelle in the meanwhile is becoming increasingly annoying, though thankfully her presence in this episode is brief and well handled. Yet here too it is with Richard that our sympathies lie, and his response, verbal and gestures, are indicative of the talent of Mr. Mahershala Ali.

The episode's final sequence unites Isabelle with the shady X-Files characters, and ends with a distinct imitation of an X-Files moment: the reveal of a high security freezer stories a multitude of vials of promicen, all sucked out of Isabelle.

Maybe they sent you back to keep me alive so I can...
finish me album
There is a minor and unnecessary though nonetheless interesting thread involving Shawn and famous bad boy rocker Nick Crowley (quite well played by Neil Hopkins). The scene involves a drugged-out rock star that fanboy Shawn inadvertently saves, and who expects him and his healing hands to be around every time he overdoses. The final moment and Crowley's angry disappointment are a great character-revealing finish. Perhaps the story-line was needed to keep Shawn in the episode, or perhaps simply as filler. I do like the contrast between a story of a man needing a healer to constantly save him from peril, and the story of Dr. Burkhoff who requires no external hands as he is an instant self-healer. Possibly the intention of this side narrative is to illustrate how truly powerful Burkhoff now is; a greater asset in some respects as Shawn, due to the implication that while Shawn is vulnerable, especially with his ties to Isabelle, while Burkhoff is potentially immortal.

Finally, to cap off this lengthy article, there is a nice moment between Diana and Marco. We haven't yet seen them together since Diana broke off their relationship, and the moment they first do make contact, at Dr. Burkhoff's apartment, the awkward moment and Marco's "Hi" are all a nice testament to continuity. Marco's ongoing concern for Diana is appropriate and accurate to both the situation and the character.

Among the many episodes co-scripted by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny, "The Ballad of Kevin and Tess" is directed by The 4400 co-creator Scott Peters.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Casual Shorts: Robert Bloch, "Talent" (1960)

Robert Bloch, "Talent"
  • If, July 1960
  • Atoms & Evil, Fawcett Gold Medal, August 1962
  • The Best Science Fiction from If, ed. Frederik Pohl, Galaxy Publishing, 1964
  • The Oddballs, ed. Vic Ghidalia, Manor Books, 1973
  • Christopher Lee's "X" Certificate, eds. Christopher Lee & Michel Parry, W.H. Allen, 1975
  • From the Archives of Evil, eds. Christopher Lee & Michel Parry, Warner Books, January 1976 (reprint of above)
  • Such Stuff as Screams Are Made of, Del Rey, February 1979
  • Bug-Eyed Monsters, eds. Bill Pronzini & Barry N. Maltzberg, Harvest, March 1980
  • Last Rites, Underwood-Miller, 1987
  • The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume 3: Last Rites, Citadel Twilight, May 1991
  • The Baen Big Book of Monsters, ed. Hank Davis, Baen, October 2014

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.

"It is perhaps a pity that nothing is known of Andrew Benson's parents."

The publication of The Baen Big Book of Monsters a few months back, a new anthology featuring reprints along with a couple of new stories (including one from editor Hank Davis), brought Robert Bloch's highly entertaining short story "Talent" back into print after a quarter century absence from the anthology scene. (The Mammoth anthologies had covered the monster genre with its 2007 anthology The Mammoth Book of Monsters, though it contained more original pieces and ignored Bloch entirely, while only digging as far back as 1973 for its reprints.) This is the second time the short story has appeared in a monster-themed anthology, having been included in the Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg edited work Bug-Eyed Monsters from 1979.

Yet the story can easily be included in a number of different theme-related groups, such as genre comedy, sci-fi/horror, movies, orphans, psychopaths and oddball characters (which it has been). among its many strengths, "Talent" encompasses a variety of aspects of genre fiction, including its approach.

The story deals with orphan Andrew Benson, a reclusive boy who awakens from a perpetual daze only when he performs mimicry. He is in fact so good at mimicry that people watching him perform are convinced he even looks exactly like the individual he is aping. When Benson discovers Hollywood movies, his penchant for imitation proves boundless. aside from his mimicry and dramatics, Benson has absolutely no interest in any other aspect of life, and his motivation becomes the story's final, surprising reveal.

"Talent" is structured like an informal investigative report. A hack journalism tries to piece together the life of Andrew Benson through little information and lot of hearsay, clipping together portions of interviews and the few facts surrounding Benson's life. Such a structure creates a specific character in the narrator: an unimaginative and strikingly unaware investigative reporter; an oxymoron in itself. This character is necessary to help build up to the ending otherwise the piece would would begin with the final line. The technique also allows Bloch to employ his gift of ironic storytelling.

Bloch's irony is present throughout the text, and his playfulness shines through the irony as he touches upon the various deaths surrounding Benson, all linked to some recent movie or movie trend ("you've probably seen something just like it in the movies a dozen times"). Centering his humour around the irony is what makes "Talent" such an enjoyable read. Bloch is charming, playful and very aware of the genre in which he is working.

Of course this brings us to the overwhelming fault in the story, which is unavoidable in Bloch's approach. (I will not spoil the story and hence risk being vague with this point.) The narrator is blindly unaware of Benson's nature to the point that it doesn't even cross his mind to speculate on connections between Benson and the deaths surrounding him which are more than obvious to the reader. In fact, the narrator rejects the theories brought up by one of the victims even though he is fully aware of Benson's eventual transformation. In fact, it is that transformation that leads the narrator to attempt to piece the details, fact and hearsay, of Benson's life into some king of chronological biography. THat opening line (quoted above) taken into consideration along with the various theories of Benson's identity that are discussed is alone indicative, related to the ending, that those theories should not be so carelessly rejected.

Of course the story is meant for pure entertainment, so the flaw is forgivable and in no way detracts from the story itself. Like much of Bloch's short work, it's worth a read.

On a side note, there is a reference to Jack the Ripper as related to a murder in conjunction with the Ripper-related film Man in the Attic. Bloch was interested in various serial killers and wrote several pieces dealing with the nineteenth century murderer, including "Your Truly, Jack the Ripper" (1943), "A Most Unusual Murder" (1976), and the Star Trek script "Wolf in the Fold" (1967). Bloch's association with the killer is so evident that any mention of the Ripper is welcome.

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