The Twilight Zone: Nightmare at 30,000 Feet

nightmare 30000What do William Shatner, John Lithgow and Adam Scott have in common?  Well, probably plenty: they are all actors, all male, but more importantly for our article, they all had a nightmare on an airline.  No, I’m not talking about dealing with getting booted off a United flight!  I am talking about flying into the Twilight Zone with Nightmare at 30,000 feet.  Well, Shatner was a little lower in altitude: his was at 20,000 feet, but the point stands.  Shatner started it all in the original episode.  Perhaps the natural fear people have of flying lies at the heart of what made this a classic.  Lithgow’s version was a straight up reproduction of the original with updated effects and a better looking, if less iconic, creature.  Adam Scott however will experience a whole different kind of nightmare.

Once again, we have entered the land of both shadow and substance in the episode 2 of The Twilight Zone.  And like the first episode, it’s a mind trip.  Looking back on episode 1, I commented on the pacing: it was slow.  This is no quick burn either.  It builds, but that is exactly what it needed to do.  It is unnerving from start to finish.  Like Hitchcock, you know there’s a “boom” moment coming, but you don’t know when or how it will manifest.  This uses that tactic expertly.  But it hinges on a flaw.  Ok, so Adam Scott plays Justin who finds a series of coincidences surrounding his flight.  Then he finds an audio player in his seat front that chronicles the events of the flight he’s on.  Yes, unnerving!  But as he starts down the path of potential insanity, the question of what he’s listening to can be verified pretty easily if he just has someone else listen to what he’s hearing, to verify that this audio actually contains something strange.  The writer gets around this by having Scott offer it to the guy in the seat next to him who claims he doesn’t want to put that on his head because he doesn’t “want lice” but it ignores that there are others involved in this who might listen.

Ignoring that one, rather glaring, issue, the story plays out with increasing tension.  I am glad I’m not flying for a few more months.  I think to fly within weeks of this episode would be an unnerving affair.  I was tense all the way through!  The weird gremlin creature from Shatner’s version does make an unexpected cameo (and boy do I want one…) but it’s the end that is totally open to interpretation.  I refuse to do the spoiler thing: I give people a lot of grief when they do it, so let’s just say, I don’t know definitely if the ending is as cut and dried as they make it out to be.  Overall this was another successful entry into the annals of The Twilight Zone.  ML

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower

This one might leave you feeling a little flat.

In 2013 Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement, and the following year Studio Ghibli effectively shut down.  Miyazaki has since come out of retirement (he likes to do that) and the studio is back up and running, but during that period of hiatus many former Ghibli staff went off to do their own thing.  One of the most notable films to emerge from that process is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, from newly formed Studio Ponoc, founded by ex-Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura.

The director is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who also directed the sublime When Marnie was There for Studio Ghibli.  This is probably the most Ghibli-esque film you will find that was not actually made by Studio Ghibli, highly reminiscent of both Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away, but it lacks the appeal of either of those films.  Although it is solidly watchable entertainment, it feels a bit like Ghibli-by-numbers, like watching a Greatest Hits of Ghibli with the soul sucked out of it.  The thing about Studio Ghibli is that they kept doing something new, never seeking simply to repeat past triumphs.  This feels derivative in a way that no Ghibli film does.

To be clear I’m talking about the approach, rather than the subject matter.  I don’t mean derivative in the sense of the story idea, because this is an adaptation anyway, and Studio Ghibli did a few of those too.  Like Arrietty, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is based on a British children’s novel, the lesser known Little Broomstick, by Mary Stewart.  Yonebayashi really plays on the Britishness, with the locations thoroughly researched to appear as quintessentially British as possible.  For the English language dub, a cast of British actors was chosen, including Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and Lynda Baron.  Unlike the Japanese voice actors, the two children for the English dub are played by child actors: Ruby Barnhill and Louis Ashborne Serkis.  With the best will in the world, we almost never produce the calibre of child actors that the USA achieve, so let’s just be kind and recognise that they both do as good a job as could possibly be expected of them, while sounding very stage school, like any other British child actor.

This contributes to a feeling that you are watching Studio Ghibli doing Harry Potter.  I write that knowing that it’s an unfair thing to say, as Little Broomstick predated the Harry Potter books by a couple of decades – they were hardly groundbreaking, just extremely well-written.  But in this post-Potter world there is no escaping the been-there-done-that vibe we are going to get from watching a film about a young witch going to a school for witches and wizards, only to find danger and corruption lurking behind the scenes.  The backstory with Mary’s grandmother is also familiar territory for this kind of story.  I won’t deny that it is a very enjoyable film to watch.  For what it is, it is done brilliantly, and you can’t fault the artwork, which most definitely picks up where Studio Ghibli left off.  But that’s about it.  It’s a competent adaptation of a competent novel.  Not groundbreaking, just solid.  Thematically I found little to interest me.  So it’s undeniably a beautiful and entertaining piece of work, but for sheer charm and originality, I’d rather watch Kiki’s.   RP

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Shotgun Farmers

Last week my boys wanted to try a new multiplayer game together. My younger son found a silly little battle game called Shotgun Farmers.   Oh, yeah, it is as silly as it sounds!

shotgun

Who ya callin’ “chicken”?

At $10, you get a multiplayer game of utter comedy. You play as a farmer who, as the name suggests, harvests guns. You start with a (surprise!) shotgun and when you die, your weapon falls and can grow. Growing means having full ammo but grab a gun that just fell and you may only have one bullet.  There are other guns in the game, and I have a couple of favorites, but the shotgun is the main weapon of choice.

The game moves with incredible speed and is insanely comical but really can only be played in multiplayer mode which is a limitation.  See, here’s how they get ya: they give ya the ability to customize your character.  I tried to make my character look a bit like me, but these are about as lifelike as the Wii’s Mii characters.  I’ve seen images of a deep sea diving helmet that I can wear, but I need to earn enough points to be able to move up in levels.  This means playtime, ya hear?  But I don’t like to play with no young whippersnappers!  I wants ta play with my own kids and friends.  So if they ain’t available… well, I just won’t play the doggone game.  Well that’s a problem, see?  That limits the play-ability for me.  But if they are available… well, that’s a different kettle of fish.

As you can tell from my choice of words, the game has voices that are exactly what you’re readin’: country farmers talkin’ as one would expect, stereotype and all!  There are a handful of boards to play and between boards, you get to vote on the next one.  The one I like the most is the cemetery but the roadside stop-over is fun because passing cars can run you over!  And I love a good wild west board.  There are also a handful of modes to play like “hold the chicken” where you have to run with a chicken for as long as possible.  You can’t use weapons while running around with the chicken and everyone else is trying to kill you to get the chicken. Yes it is as funny as it sounds! And there’s a domination style round where you have to hold a spot longer than your opponents can.  This spot has a scarecrow and after you’ve held the spot for a while, it moves with a voice over asking “where’s the scarecrow gone?”

To enhance the game, you get some gestures that you can program.  I think you get more as the games go on.  Win a round, and you can do a jig as the camera focuses on you before the next round begins.  Or play the banjo!  Play in a team round and you each get to be on camera, which was incredibly fun as fellow blogger Paul Roeber and I played the banjo and did a jig as if we planned it.  (We actually looked far more coordinated than we ever do in real life.)

This isn’t going to be the next classic.  This won’t be remembered 20 years down the line as that “oh wow” game.  But for $10 it’s going to offer a fast-paced game that will give you a few good laughs.  Maybe they’ll release more boards but for now, have a look at the trailer and enjoy.  We could all use a bit of lighthearted fun from time to time…  ML

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Babylon 5: The Parliament of Dreams

b5When I recommended Babylon 5 to one of my oldest friends, he watched the pilot and concluded that he couldn’t relate to the characters and needed to know more about them and their cultures.  I told him to give it time; the writer had a plan for that.  By episode 5, Parliament of Dreams, we begin to see that plan come to fruition.  The main thrust of the episode is that Earth Government has scheduled a period where each of the major races can celebrate their dominant religious beliefs as part of a cultural exchange.  Great idea!   We get a chance to see a bit of Minbari, Centauri, and Earth customs.  Notably absent is the Narn religion, but that might be because the actual holy day is approaching a few episodes later (see episode 12, By Any Means Necessary).  Instead, to keep G’Kar valid for the episode, there is a subplot about an assassination attempt.  We’ll come to that in a moment.

Of the cultures we do see, there are some very interesting things to note.  The Centauri are lavish and loud and enjoy a “celebration of life”.  Vir explains the shocking origin of this, but it’s a loud, raucous affair.  They have household gods and Londo kisses one prominently on its backside.  (Pay attention to that statue!  There’s more to it than just “artistic rendering”!)  Centauri are like ancient Romans enjoying a proper bacchanalia.  Delenn displays Minbari beliefs.  One of my favorite things about good science fiction is that the stories can be told visually; it’s not always in the words (as I tell many of my friends who think they can fold laundry while watching tv…).  There are subtle things to notice, like the fact that so many things in the Mibari celebration are three-sided.  (You’re not going to notice that if you’re folding the laundry!  That said, I confess that I only noticed it this time around!)   The point is, the musical instruments and the table are examples of visual clues about a culture that needs no verbal explanation.  Minbari belief is spiritual; like monks; there is no over the top festivity to their culture.  And then we come to humanity.  How do we define our “dominant” belief?  Exactly as Sinclair decides, by recognizing all of the belief systems of our diverse little planet.  (Of note, I recall reading somewhere that Michael O’Hare (Sinclair) memorized all of the people’s names after only two read-throughs, many of whom used their real names and religions.  I may not be able to remember that many names, but a stat like that I’m not likely to forget!)

Meanwhile, G’Kar is worried about an assassination and his former aide has died mysteriously, replaced by Na’Toth.  Na’Toth is a wonderfully no-nonsense sort of Narn and makes a great counterpoint to G’Kar in ways Ko’Dath never could.  This subplot offers a degree of humor as G’Kar goes through a very harrowing time.  There are two things to notice with the G’Kar subplot.  The first is that, like Delenn, G’Kar wants his status on the Narn council kept secret.  Delenn tells her new aide, Lennier, her own status should be kept secret just as G’Kar does with Na’Toth.  Why are so many of the delegates hiding their status?  Second, and more about the type of show we’re watching, is that G’Kar is not just in full makeup most days; they even have a chest piece for Andreas to wear.  We see G’Kar as more than just a dude in a mask, but a complete alien life form.  This just goes to show that the Star Trek/Doctor Who excuse of not being able to put an actor into such a costume was utter nonsense.  This is proof that the Doctor could have an alien companion; this was in the 90s!  (Say what you want, but we’ve come a long way since then and we still don’t have alien companions that don’t look exactly like us!)

Finally, I’ll remind readers that we have invested in a “real” world; things that happened in the past still matter.  Remember Caroline from The Gathering?  As Sinclair is spending time with his old flame, Catherine Sakai, he explains that he and Caroline grew apart, even going so far as to explain what happened between them.  As I’ve said before, this is a living universe being created by JMS.  It’s inspired and unique.  The relationships are real, like when Catherine arrives at Jeff’s quarters and hears him listening to Tennyson.  She asks:  “And which are you? ‘An idle king doling unequal laws unto a savage race that hoard and sleep and feed and know not you?’ Or ‘This gray spirit yearning in desire to follow knowledge like a sinking star.’”  Think about that, as he is clearly no idle king of the station and he does have a “hole in his mind” that he wants to figure out.  Yes, plot threads abound…

When I first watched Babylon 5, it was being broadcast on Wednesday nights.  This made it hard to get home to catch the show, so after week 6, I bailed only to come back years later.  But Catherine said goodbye to Jeff with the line “see you next Wednesday”.  I have no doubt that was intentional as, like me, Catherine would be back the following week… as we will see in our next article.  ML

The view from across the pond:

“I am dying”
“About time”
“In fact, by the time you get this recording, I will be already dead.”
“Cheers!”

I suspect my favourite episodes of B5 are going to be the ones that focus on G’Kar, the most entertaining character by a mile.  And that gets a million times better here, with the arrival of one of the mysterious missing cast members who have been in the opening credits from the start:

Diplomatic attaché Na’Toth reporting for duty.

Na’Toth and G’Kar scheming together makes for a fabulous double act.  They made this episode the best so far, by a considerable margin.  The other missing regular cast member turns up as well this episode, and look!  It’s little Billy Mumy from Lost in Space, not so little any more.  He didn’t have much to do, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to be great, because, well… it is Will Robinson.

There were three stories going on here: the attempt on G’Kar’s life, the religious festival, and Sinclair’s girlfriend.  Something I have noticed so far with B5 is that it suffers with disconnected B plots.  Sinclair, conveniently divorced because a married commander allows for less interesting stories, hooks up with an old flame.  Yawn.  Sorry, but he’s far from being an interesting enough character to make this anything other than an irritating distraction from the main plot.  I hope and assume (due to the popularity of B5) that JMS learns at some point how to integrate B and A plots in an episode. These are self-contained episodes and they need to be fully integrated, or what you end up with is a one-episode soap opera, which is unsatisfying as a viewing experience. I could really have done without his icky bedroom scene as well.

The religious festival was more fun, especially London Londo having a bit too much to drink:

“He has become one with his inner self.”
“He’s passed out.”
“That too.”

Ivanova seems to have suddenly transformed from ice queen to party girl, but never mind.  Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, I suppose.

That was all a side dish though.  The main meal for this episode was G’Kar and his assassination attempt, and the whole thing walked the line beautifully between G’Kar being afraid and also rising to the challenge.  After the initial shock of receiving the black flower, for example, G’Kar then starts almost treating it all like a game, as if he’s relishing the chance to get the better of his enemies.  Functionally, this was another enemy-within story, with the episode revolving around the revelation of the identity of the assassin.  But JMS ain’t no Agatha Christie.  The courier is clearly about to leave the station when Na’Toth intercepts him.  If he planned that, it’s some amazing timing.  So it didn’t quite all stack up, and I get the impression that JMS was trying to guide the viewer into a position of doubting Na’Toth, which… didn’t happen.  Not for one second.  But I can forgive those kinds of issues when an episode is just so entertaining.

“Do you know what the last one said before he died? Aaaaarrrghhhh!”

RP

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Whispers of Terror

whispersThe third release by Big Finish, Whispers of Terror, does something brilliant.  It gives us a creature that exists as a sound.  When I was a kid, I had a Star Trek record where the crew encountered a sound creature and it was weird and wonderful.  All these years later, and here we are in the land of Doctor Who with a sound creature.  What makes this brilliant isn’t the idea itself but the medium that it was released on: CD.  This is an audio story where the creature can live in the car as you’re driving.  Or in the CD player you’re listening to.  It’s a damned good idea for an audio story.  I love when the writers are daring with a creative idea.  It makes up for a lot!

That’s not to say it’s perfect.  Don’t get me wrong, Colin Baker has a fantastic voice and can project almost as well as Brian Blessed but the story starts off on the wrong foot.  In fact, episode one turned me off initially.  The Doctor’s sarcasm with Peri is offensive, implying she’s “redundant” and she picks up on the look he gives her when he says the word “dim”, implying in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t think much of his traveling companion.  This was a bit hard to swallow.  I also get tired of Big Finish thinking a loud sound makes a good ending.  “Oh NOOOOO…. OoooEEEE,ooooobaba-da-bum,baba-da-bum….” Or <Explosive crash> OoooEEEEooooo,baba-da-bum,baba-da-bum….”  Ok, loud noises made “Rock” from Anchorman uncomfortable, but for the listener, they just get old really fast.  Although one of the endings reminded me of my favorite cliffhanger from The Face of Evil, so I’ll accept that one a bit more…

But barring those things, the story does ramp up well.  It’s also timely today.  The plot centers around the political rise to power for Beth Purnell.  She is at the Museum of Aural Antiquities where she hopes the words of the “worlds greatest actor” will help launch her political career.  So there’s a lot to that: the worlds greatest actor will convince people of her place as a politician.  The world “needs a strong leader”, she insists.  I found myself thinking of the situation (for, what else can one call it) here in the US!

I also just read a short Agatha Christie story with detective Parker Pyne who comments on the fact that one of the suspects in a murder doesn’t fit the profile of a murderer.  When a similar thing happened in this, I was surprised!  But it does bear thought: a trained police officer or detective probably would be able to gauge with reasonable accuracy whether a man were guilty of a crime or not.  However, the moment I enjoyed most however was one of two aural stunts.  (One I will remain silent on so the listener can enjoy it themselves – though I’m certain there’s a pun in there somewhere!)  The Doctor is talking through a communicator to Peri and Gantman, the blind curator of the museum (played by Doctor Who legend Peter Miles), when… the Doctor walks into the room.  The two realize they’ve being fooled by the creature.  But this gives the Doctor a chance to talk to it – it’s not infallible!  This is a creature that can be defeated and does make mistakes.  I thought that was a breath of fresh air!  (Speaking of Gantman, Miles has such a distinctive voice, I kept expecting Nyder to announce he was working for Davros!)

The story becomes increasingly exciting and by the end, I was completely invested.  There’s a strong story here and it holds up well.  It’s a great listen in the car, especially as a car accident takes place at one point and freaked me out a bit!  But it does end with another low note.  The Doctor mimics Peri’s “So long” and it’s painful to hear.  It has its flaws but they are but a small portion of an otherwise exciting story.  ML

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Mama Bear Jackie

jackie-tylerCompanion Tropes 14

If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.  But it probably won’t be a teddy bear’s picnic, or a bear attack, for that matter.  Bears rarely attack humans, and the number of fatalities from bear attacks in North America per year can usually be counted on one hand.  You’re more than ten times more likely to die of a wasp or bee sting, and more than 100 times more likely to die of hypothermia.  Some form of transportation claims around 50,000 lives a year.  So a swipe from mama bear is not all that likely… unless you threaten her children.

The same principle tends to apply to most humans: generally peaceful and harmless, but we will unleash fury if our children are ever in danger, and that brings us to a particular kind of character that pops up very often in television and film: the mama bear.  Doctor Who has more than one of them, but the best example is probably Jackie Tyler.

In her first appearance in Rose, she is quick to go on the attack for her daughter, trying to get her to sue for compensation when Henrik’s gets blown up, although money is obviously a big part of her motivation.  After the Auton attack, Jackie’s first thought is to tell her daughter “don’t go out of the house”.  But her mama bear fury is really unleashed first in Aliens of London, when her daughter returns after an absence of a year.  Her response is to physically attack the Doctor: “stitch this!”  She is also quick to report the Doctor to the authorities, believing it is the best thing to do in order to protect her daughter.  But there is an even more significant mama bear moment that might pass you by if you’re an international viewer: Jackie brings in tea for her friend and for Rose, but doesn’t offer tea to the Doctor…

I’m not going to make him welcome.

O…. M… G…  There is probably no worse insult known to a Brit than to deny a house guest a cup of tea.  This mama bear is seriously angry.

In World War Three, Jackie tries to pin the Doctor down to guarantee Rose’s safety.  It’s an impassioned speech from a mother who is terrified of losing her only daughter:

JACKIE: Since that man walked into our lives, I have been attacked in the streets. I have had creatures from the pits of hell in my own living room, and my daughter disappear off the face of the Earth.
ROSE: I told you what happened.
JACKIE: I’m talking to him. ‘Cos I’ve seen this life of yours, Doctor, and maybe you get off on it, and maybe you think it’s all clever and smart, but you tell me.  Just answer me this. Is my daughter safe?

Of course, Jackie has to finally come to accept that this is Rose’s life now, and there is nothing she can do to protect her when she is with the Doctor, but when she can help Rose she’s sure going to do her best.  In The Parting of the Ways she turns up with a truck to bust open the TARDIS console, so Rose can get back to the Doctor.  In Doomsday she refuses to leave Rose, even if it costs her her life:

ROSE: No, I’m not leaving here.
JACKIE: I’m not going without her.
PETE: Oh, my God. We’re going!
JACKIE: I’ve had twenty years without you, so button it. I’m not leaving her.
ROSE: You’ve got to.
JACKIE: Well, that’s tough.

Even in Rose’s absence, Jackie continues to try to protect her.  Just look at her reaction to finding a photo of Rose in Elton’s coat pocket, in Love & Monsters:

Let me tell you something about those who get left behind. Because it’s hard. And that’s what you become, hard. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that I will never let her down. And I’ll protect them both until the end of my life. So whatever you want, I’m warning you, back off.

In Journey’s End, we see what Jackie is capable of when her daughter is in danger.  First she shows up with a massive gun and, together with Mickey, blasts some Daleks out of existence.  Then, when she sees Sarah Jane surrendering to the Daleks, she reasons that doing the same thing will get her to her daughter.  She doesn’t give it a second thought, laying down her weapon and walking out in front of the Daleks.  Nothing’s going to stop this mama bear from getting to her daughter.

So when the Doctor gets hit by another angry mother in The Lazarus Experiment and says “always the mothers” perhaps he is learning an important lesson about human nature.  How many young women has he whisked off into space with him over the years?  How many furious mothers have been left behind?  Maybe one day he will have to face his most dangerous enemy yet: the combined forces of his companions’ parents.  There will be nowhere to hide… RP

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The Twilight Zone: The Comedian

Due  to completing my fallout series, looking back at season 11 of Doctor Who, my Tuesday articles on Big Finish audios will move to Thursday and Tuesdays will take a brief visit to The Twilight Zone.  

The twilight zoneCBS All Access recently brought Star Trek back to our screens with Star Trek: Discovery and through the brilliant Jordan Peele, we’ve now started a new series of another classic: The Twilight Zone.  With only two episodes aired at the time of this writing, I wanted to check them out and determine just how much of the classic is still alive.  Can Jordan Peele bring The Twilight Zone to a modern audience?  And I think the answer is yes… with a caveat.

Opening with The Comedian, we are treated to the story of comedian Samir Wassan who  simply isn’t funny.  His jokes are opinions about politics and he can’t get anyone to laugh.  When at the bar one night, legend J. C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) appears to him and asks if he really wants to be successful.  And suddenly he is!  But, as with everything in The Twilight Zone, there’s a price tag involved and it might just be too high.

It’s not a question of whether the story is good.  Netflix has Black Mirror to fill the void that The Twilight Zone left and that might actually be a better show, but we need more time to make that determination. No, it’s a question of: does it have what it takes to carry the name.  Frankly, Black Mirror is astoundingly good, but The Twilight Zone is a name that goes back over 50 years and has a legendary reputation.  Jordan Peele’s opening is wonderful and immediately invoked that spirit that goes back to my childhood.  Black Mirror will never be able to do that for long time fans.  That’s not to knock Black Mirror!  It’s just a testament to the nature of the Zone.  And that’s a heck of a challenge for Mr. Peele!  He’s no Rod Serling… but he’s not doing a bad job trying.

The cast is also spot on.  Comic rival DiDi Scott (Diarra Kilpatrick) is a wonderful foil, putting Wassan down and making his decision to be the best that much easier.  Amara Karan (who Doctor Who fans will remember as Rita from The God Complex – a character I really wanted to see travel with the Doctor) is wonderful as Wassan’s girlfriend.  But the story comes down to a standard story of The Monkey’s Paw or any genie story: a wish has a price and that price is too high.  There’s nothing unique in it.  It’s good, but completely predictable.  On top of that, the episode plays for nearly an hour.  The best of the Zone were the 30 minute episodes that left the viewer stunned.  If there is one added perk to this version, it’s the mini-game fans of the classic series will get to play; the “spot the icon” where some element of the classic series might make a cameo.  In this case, watch out for The Dummy.  

the comedianIs it good?  Absolutely.  Does it have character?  Certainly.  Can it sustain?  Maybe.  But it’s early days and we have to be fair.  The first episode of Black Mirror is one I always warn people to stay away from until they know if they like the series.  Maybe this first episode will be the weakest.  Maybe the ones that follow will be better.  The first episode I was stunned to find on Youtube!  CBS All Access actually gave us a complete story for free unlike that atrocity they pulled with Star Trek: Discovery.  I think I’ll give this a few episodes to talk about it with our friends at the Junkyard.

It’s time to cross over into The Twilight Zone.  ML

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