Seven Months of Trek

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the beginning of the original series. I was in college then, without easy access to a TV, and it probably took me years to catch all the episodes (mostly on black and white sets back in the day). Since then I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek and The Next Generation an embarrassing number of times. I can nearly recite the dialog along with most of them. On the other end, I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy Scott Bakula, I never really warmed up to Enterprise.


But I loved Voyager and Deep Space Nine, both long off the air. I’d seen all of Voyager, but not since its original run, and I’d missed big chunks of Deep Space Nine, which was shown in syndication and probably moved around the schedule a lot. So I chortled with glee last July when the oldie channel Heroes & Icons announced it would be showing all five series six nights a week, straight through in their original order. Voyager wrapped up (and started again from the beginning) last week, Deep Space Nine this week, and it was great fun to watch the whole sagas in seven months instead of the original seven years.


voyager-companionI had picked up a copy of Star Trek Voyager Companion at Half Price books a couple of years ago and stashed in on the shelf with my well-worn copy of Captains’ Logs (which covers the franchise from the beginning through the casting of Voyager). Not the sort of book one sits down and reads from cover to cover, the Voyager Companion includes episode synopses, cast lists, lots of pictures, features on the characters, and several passable indexes, but not much behind-the-scenes information. When the series started its run last July, I started reading the book, episode by episode (especially useful when I dozed off during Act 3, not an unusual occurrence given the 11 PM time slot).


I immediately decided I needed the corresponding Star Trek Deep Space Nine Companion, but that book was out of print and not easy to find. Enter Alibris, where I found a copy indeep-space-nine-companion mid August. I quickly caught up to reading by the episode. The Deep Space Nine book far outshines the Voyager volume (except for its lack of multiple indexes). Detailed synopses of the episodes are followed by behind-the-scenes sections describing the writing process, character development, special effects, connections to other episodes, and more. The tales of “story breaking” are informative not just for screenwriting techniques, but for the choices made in developing character and plot consistent with the long arcs of the series. Many finished episodes reflected only a kernel of the original story idea.


Why do I continue to watch Trek episodes that I’ve seen over and over again? Not for the plots, good, bad, or indifferent. I know what happens, no surprises there. I watch for the characters. I don’t so much care what they’re doing—I care who they are. There’s a lesson for writers in that: we may have a plot, but without characters that our readers care about, we may not have a story.


Live Long and Prosper!

Hell On Wheels: Done

Hell On Wheels has come to the end of the road, with a final episode full of choices, endings, and new beginnings. (And this post is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t yet watched the finale, go watch it now.)


“Done” (Durant’s one-word message to the rest of the nation) was an episode of human drama, without the raw violence and death that has marked so much of the series. Quiet conversations between Cullen Bohannon and Eva, Governor Campbell, Durant, George Armstrong Custer, and President Grant carried much of the story, settling old questions and raising new options.


The transcontinental railroad itself, of course, was completed (in episode 13, “Railroad Men”), and “Done” opened with Durant and Huntington bickering over who would drive the Golden Spike. Durant won that argument, but things went downhill for him from then on, as he was indicted and sent back to Washington to stand trial on charges of bribery and corruption. We already knew, from a previous flash-forward (or from Wikipedia), that Doc Durant’s life ended in poverty and disgrace, but Hell On Wheels ended with his passionate defense of his building of the railroad. (Colm Meaney’s performance throughout the series has been magnificent: Durant was sleazy but determined, climbing back from every defeat, both mentor and foil to Bohannon.)


The Golden Spike Ceremony (from

The Golden Spike Ceremony (from

Eva Toole (one of my favorite characters throughout the series), who has survived everything a hard life could throw at her, tells Cullen that she left her Mohave family long ago to protect them from the white men determined to take her back. When Louise Ellison and her editor offer Eva the chance to write a book and set out on a lecture tour (as Olive Oatman, the inspiration for Eva’s backstory, actually did), Eva agrees, but she weeps when she tries to describe her Mohave family and realizes she can’t live with a version of her story dramatized for the public. She won’t be a victim—or another sort of whore. Instead, she cashes out her share of Mickey’s business, tames her white horse, and rides off into the west, perhaps in search of her past with the Mohave, perhaps the only time she was truly happy.


Cullen wakes up with a hangover and a piece of silk with Mei’s last message, an address (he learns from an equally hungover Chinese foreman) in Ningpo, China. He stumbles to Mickey’s makeshift saloon and, while Durant and Huntington are driving the Golden Spike, starts a bar brawl that ends in laughter when Governor Campbell (now Secretary of the Interior) comes looking for him with a subpoena to testify against Durant back in Washington. In the capital, Cullen (in evening dress!) is offered a commission by President Grant to lead the 4th Cavalry in protecting the railroad he has built.


Despite his reservations (“I’m no Indian killer”), he decides to accept the commission (he also has a job waiting with Huntington to build the Southern Pacific, if he wants it), and he appears at Durant’s trial in uniform. There he refuses to throw Durant under the train, insisting that without Durant, the railroad could never have been built.


Custer and Bohannon (from

Custer and Bohannon (from

A conversation—punctuated by target practice—with George Armstrong Custer shakes Cullen’s decision to return to soldiering. Custer’s delight in killing Indians (and raping Indian women) is exactly the attitude Cullen has tried so hard to leave behind. Still in uniform, he visits the very church in which he began the murderous trail of revenge that brought him to Hell On Wheels in the first place, sees the bullet hole he made in the confessional when he killed a man there, and breaks into tears. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you.”


No more killing. Cullen leaves the uniform behind and heads west, taking the train to San Francisco, on a track that exists in large part because of his efforts. No more railroad work, either. Instead (as I hoped, and to the delight of my romance-writer’s heart), he boards a ship to China, following Mei.


I will miss Hell On Wheels (and perhaps one day will watch it again, all the way through), and I’m sorry to see it end, but I think the writers and actors did an excellent job of bringing the epic to a close and giving the survivors the endings—and opportunities—they had earned.

Hell On Wheels: Two Soldiers

Hell On Wheels returned last night with the first of its last seven episodes, this one nearly a two-man show. Warning: There Will Be Spoilers Here.


Instead of the Hatch homestead, where Cullen Bohannon and Thor Gunderson were headed when we last saw them nearly a year ago, Two Soldiers opens in a Union Army camp in 1863, with a cheerful young officer playing a harmonica as his fellows laugh and sing. A young man, with a full head of dark hair, the camp’s quartermaster. Yes, it’s Gunderson.


In the next scenes, Gunderson ages by decades in the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. Now mockingly called Swede by the prison guards, Gunderson has lost everything, from his beloved harmonica to the basic rules of humanity. We have a glimpse of how a young man from Norway becomes the odious Swede we have hated for five years.


photo credit AMC.COM

photo credit AMC.COM

By the time Bohannon reaches the Hatch homestead, the Swede has killed or wounded everyone but Naomi and baby William; he chases them into the woods, Bohannon following. Over the course of the episode, Bohannon, with a bullet in his leg, resists the temptation to drown the Swede, to shoot him, to let him die by snake bite, or to leave him to die in the desert. When Naomi asks him why he doesn’t just kill the man, Bohannon insists he will see the Swede hang for his multitude of crimes.


After a harrowing two-day journey across the desert to a small army camp, Bohannon receives medical care and the Swede receives a legitimate trial (conducted while Bohannon is unconscious, but after he’s told the Army commander enough to investigate the homestead and bring in a judge from Salt Lake).


The Swede’s hanging, witnessed by Bohannon, is gruesome indeed, mirroring the last struggles of the snake Bohannon killed in the desert. No courteous professional executioner or well-built trap door gallows (as was provided for Ruth) here, just a crossbar, a noose, and enough soldiers to haul the Swede up and let him strangle to death, with all the hideous details. Yes, this time he’s really dead.


When we first met Bohannon, at the beginning of the series, he was killing a man in cold blood, in a church, in revenge for the deaths of his wife and child during the war. He has pursued the Swede for years, as the Swede has pursued him. He has more than enough personal reasons for revenge against the man who killed Lily Bell just to spite Bohannon. But when the time finally comes, Bohannon wants public justice more than he wants personal revenge.


How much did the Swede contribute to that change of heart? Sane or mad, the Swede has functioned as a bizarre conscience as well as a villain, as Bohannon’s mirror as well as his opposite. There was, after all, a human being inside the Swede, driven mad, perhaps, by the war, ruthless, manipulative, as hard to kill as Rasputin. His last words? “I am Thor Gunderson from Norway.”


The episode left me wondering why Christopher Heyerdahl (who has won many Canadian acting awards) hasn’t won an Emmy for this stunning five-season performance. Maybe this year.

Changing (TV) Seasons

It’s the end of August and summer is coming to an end. Well, perhaps not weatherwise; summer in Texas might well run into October, along with the hurricane season. But looking at the TV listings, I can see that we’ve fallen into the gap between the end of the summer shows and the return of the network regulars. Warning: spoilers ahead.


Last night I watched the series finale of Falling Skies, after five seasons of alien invasion mayhem. I’ve seen reviews on line, written by people who take TV shows far more seriously than I do, tearing it apart, but I was happy with it. Fine with me that all the members of the Mason family survived (even those who had died and come back to life, thanks to one of the alien allies). I was happy to see the show end on an optimistic note. I really don’t care how all the men found suits and ties to wear (after five years of pretty much wearing the same bedraggled jeans and jackets) or where the women got their hair done. They had defeated the invincible aliens (with perhaps a nod to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds solution) and that wrapped it up for me.


Friday night’s episode of Defiance was billed as the season finale, but the show must be on the bubble, and the production team gave us an episode which could just as well serve as the series finale, if the show isn’t picked up for a fourth season. By the end of the episode, Nolan (unquestionably the protagonist for the past three seasons) was piloting the Omec ship into the galactic depths rather than blow it up and destroy the thousands of beings on board in suspended animation, with Doc Yewll plugged into the ship’s computer. A few weeks later we see the people of Defiance, humans and all the various aliens alike, peacefully going about their business. Irisa is now the Lawkeeper, Amanda is recovering from her injuries, and Datak and Stahma Tarr, the ever-scheming aliens we love to hate, are together again. How they might carry on with a fourth season without Nolan and Yewll (or how they might bring them back), I don’t know, but I’ll watch if they do.


The SyFy channel had two new shows on the Friday night schedule this summer, Killjoys and Dark Matter, and both of those ended their first seasons with cliffhangers. Killjoys is about a trio of “reclamation agents,” working for an agency that retrieves anything, human or artifact, for a price, definitely the more space opera of the two. Dark Matter is a bit more serious and dark, with six people waking up on a ship with their memories wiped, dodging various dangers while attempting to recover their identities, aided by the rather endearing female android who runs the ship. I watched both without investing much in them; I’ll watch if they come back next year and forget them if they don’t. If it were up to me to pick one to return, it would be Killjoys.


Saturday evening I watched the “mid-season finale” of Hell On Wheels. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until next summer for the second half of the season (which I suspect has already been filmed, at least in part). Most of this summer’s seven episodes were set in Truckee, California, as Bohannon worked to drive the Central Pacific Railroad east through the Rocky Mountains. There we met the Chinese who built the railroad, including a boy named Fong who turned out to be a girl named Mei, and assorted other new characters, while Gunderson (the Swede) plotted to replace Brigham Young with one of Young’s sons. Back in Laramie, we caught up with Eva, Durant, and their associates. In Saturday night’s episode, “False Prophets,” Bohannon joined Durant, Huntington, Brigham Young, and President Grant in Salt Lake City, arguing over the route of the railroad. By the end of the episode, they had set up the race to join the two railroads (north of the Great Salt Lake, much to Young’s disgust), Gunderson’s plot to control the Mormons had gone badly awry, and Bohannon and Gunderson were in their own race to reach Bohannon’s wife and son. Considering Hell On Wheels’ willingness to kill major characters and Bohannon’s disastrous record in the area of personal relationships, I’ll be worried about Naomi and little William until the show comes back next summer for its final seven episodes.


What did you watch this summer, and what are you looking forward to watching this fall?

Hell on Wheels: Ruth’s Decision

I don’t think I’ve written about Hell on Wheels this season, although I’ve been watching faithfully. Last night’s episode, Thirteen Steps, revolved around Ruth Cole, the Church Lady. If you haven’t watched but plan to, you may want to leave now. There will be spoilers.

Ruth Cole

Two episodes ago, in Return to Hell, Ruth shot Sydney Snow, who had come back to town after setting the church on fire and killing (although not intentionally) Ezra Dutton, the boy Ruth had taken in. The fact that Snow was facing off with Bohannon at the time had nothing to do with Ruth’s action. She simply wanted to kill the man who had killed her child.

In last week’s episode, Bloody Kansas, Snow died, despite the best efforts of Bohannon, Durant (who once attended medical school, studying ophthalmology, but never graduated), Eva, and Louise, leaving Ruth open to a murder charge. (The only reason anyone wanted to save Snow’s life, mind you, was to protect Ruth.)

This week, in Thirteen Steps (the number of stairs to the gallows), no one wanted Ruth to hang but Ruth. Bohannon swore that she had saved his life by shooting Snow, but she would have none of it. Governor Campbell was willing, even eager, to grant her a pardon, but, following the letter of the law, only if she would formally accept it. She refused, saying that pardons are for cowards. Bohannon even tried to drag her out of her cell and put her on a train to New York, but she refused that, too. The people of Cheyenne, gathered in the street in front of the jail, holding candles while the hangman rebuilt the gallows that Bohannon had pushed over, could not shake her resolve.

Ruth gave no reason beyond the fact that she was guilty of murder, that she had shot Snow simply because she wanted to kill him.

So many small things made this a fascinating and multi-layered hour of television. Bohannon and Ruth talking in the jail most of the night, he telling her about a botched hanging he had once witnessed, she telling him about the time she slipped in a mud puddle that was really a deposit of horse droppings, the two of them sharing a genuine laugh over her embarrassment—how may times have we seen Cullen Bohannon laugh?

Louise catching Campbell dancing, alone in his room, and telling her that back East, after a hard decision, he would take his wife dancing.

The grave and courteous professional hangman, assuring Ruth that he would be with her, explaining exactly what would happen, patiently rebuilding the gallows Bohannon had pushed down. The hangman’s strange assistant, a little boy wearing the same uniform of black coat and top hat.

The writers on Hell on Wheels don’t pull their punches. There was no last minute reprieve, no miraculous rescue, no sudden change of heart, only Bohannon, who had stormed off, unwilling to be a party to it all, reappearing at the last minute so that Ruth, by now terrified, could see him there before the hood dropped over her head, and we heard the trap door open beneath her feet.

At the end of Thirteen Steps, perhaps moved by Ruth’s insistence that “the brave choice is always family,” Bohannon, who has buried Ruth next to Ezra, tells Durant “I quit,” and heads for Fort Smith, Naomi and baby William.

One more episode this season, and then a final season, another fourteen episodes split between 2015 and 2016 (oh, the waiting!). Will Bohannon find his family? Will the railroad cross the mountains? Stay tuned.

(Kasha Kropinski and Anson Mount discuss the episode and their characters on the AMC Hell on Wheels web site.)

Summer TV and History

Remember when the TV season ran from late September through sometime in May, and the summer was populated with reruns and variety shows? These days summer TV is still full of reruns, as well as countless “reality shows,” but the cable networks have thrown the old calendar aside and put some of their best (scripted!) shows on in the summer. I often say I don’t care for violence, but apparently it’s only twenty-first century violence that bothers me. Dress the offenders up in costume and send them back in time, throw in some beautiful scenery, and I’m there for all the blood and guts.

One of my favorites, Hell on Wheels, began its 2014 season this weekend, catching us up with most of most of its established characters and adding some new ones. Protagonist Cullen Bohannon is still trapped in the Mormon fort, digging a well under the supervision of his long-time nemesis the Swede (who pointed out once again, in his assumed identity as Bishop Dutson, that the “late” Thor Gundersen was actually Norwegian). The opener saw the birth of Cullen’s son and his new determination to take Naomi and the baby with him when he leaves.

Meanwhile in Cheyenne, Durant manages to sink an entire train in a frozen river, auction off his land to raise money, and get himself thrown out of the hotel by an angry Maggie Palmer. General Grant, about to be elected President, has sent a new watchdog to make Durant’s life miserable. Eva is doing laundry for the brothel, determined not to go back to whoring (“But that’s what you’re good at,” says Mickey McGinnes, now the mayor of Cheyenne—and still running the brothel), and mourning the loss of Elam.

That’s right, there was no sign of Elam, not even in the opening credits, but I’m hoping he’ll be back. Maybe he’s been hanging with Joseph Black Moon’s folks since he had that run in with the bear. It would be nice to see Joseph back again, too.

Hell on Wheels 2014

Another period show I’ve been enjoying this summer is The Musketeers, a rousing swashbuckler from BBCAmerica, featuring swords, guns, and four very attractive men. I haven’t read Dumas in several decades (my tolerance for long, involved nineteenth century epic novels is not what it once was), so I can’t even guess whether any of the story lines have been taken from the original novel. But I had no trouble recognizing the characters. Athos, the mature, responsible aristocrat, is younger than I always imagined him (he was my favorite), but carries the part well. Aramis is the devil-may-care swordsman with the heart of a romantic, and Porthos is the mixed race (as was Dumas himself) child of the streets. And D’Artagnan, of course, remains the idealistic young countryman, determined to earn a commission in the King’s Musketeers. The most recognizable actor, to Americans anyway, is Peter Capaldi, spot-on as Cardinal Richelieu. If a second season is planned, they may have to recast or eliminate the Cardinal, as Capaldi has moved on to become the new Doctor Who. The Musketeers was filmed somewhere near Prague, with scenery doing a remarkable job of passing for early seventeenth century France, from the underside of Paris to the glories of the palaces and churches.

The Musketeers

Vikings, perhaps the most violent of all, is over for 2014 but will be back in 2015. This season ended with a blood bath, leaving Ragnar, a simple farmer when the series began, as the apparent king. My favorite Viking, though, is still Lagertha, shield maiden, Ragnar’s former wife, now an earl in her own right.

Many of my friends are excited about Outlander, just starting this week. I’m afraid I’ll have to wait for the DVDs on that one, as I don’t subscribe to Showtime. That might just give me time to read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. I know I have the first one, right over there on one of the To Be Read shelves . . .

Hell On Wheels: Season 3 Ends

I’ve seen some mixed reviews of last night’s Hell on Wheels season 3 finale.  It certainly wasn’t the slam-bang, burn-the-place-down episode we saw at the end of season 2.  I was a bit surprised at how quietly (for the most part) it ended, but not disappointed.  If you haven’t seen the episode, and plan to, here’s the warning:  There Will Be Spoilers.

Cullen Bohannon:  Cullen was ready to fight his Mormon captors, and the Swede, to the death–until he realized that Naomi, the Mormon girl he tumbled in the barn early in the season, was carrying his child.  He offered to marry her and stay (as a near-slave) at least “until the child is born and the crops are in the ground.”  This didn’t sit well with Naomi’s father, despite the fact that Naomi was now virtually untouchable among the Mormons, but it apparently struck the Swede, now known as Bishop Dutson, as sweet revenge.  Naomi refused to accuse Cullen of rape, and made a point of telling him so before there was any talk of marriage.  “We’ll work this out together,” Cullen tells Naomi.  Of course the Swede may have other ideas.

Thomas Durant:  Delighted by Cullen’s unexplained absence when General Grant and the Credit Mobilier men arrive, Durant once again claimed control of the railroad.  His series of “toasts” to Bohannon offended the group, but there’s no one else to do the job.

Elam Ferguson:  And here’s the real cliffhanger.  Over Eva’s objections, loyal Elam armed himself to the teeth and set out to rescue Cullen from the Mormons.  He shot his way (remember early on when Cullen taught Elam to fire a gun?) through a war party of Indians and reached a vantage point over the Mormon fort.  But while he scoped out the situation, his horse broke loose, frightened off by an enormous and angry bear.  When his gun jammed, Elam pulled out a knife.  At episode’s end, the camera pans over the dead bear to Elam, lying motionless and bloody a few feet away.  I’m not convinced.  If the Swede could survive that drop into the river, surely Elam will rise again.

The Swede:  Gunderson, Anderson, and now Dutson, the Swede (who reminds us now and then that he’s actually Norwegian) seems to be indestructible.  Now he’s ruling the roost at the Mormon fort as Bishop Dutson, mild-mannered (for the most part) man of God.  We could almost believe he’s changed, if we hadn’t watched him murder Ezra’s parents.  He makes perhaps the most telling speech of the episode, saying to Cullen that if he believes he (Cullen) has changed over time, he has to be willing to accept change in others.

And the ladies:  I’ve always been a fan of the women on this show.  No one has quite filled the central role played by Lily Bell in the first two seasons, but I still follow their stories with interest.  As season 3 concludes, we see Ruth (who will be crushed to learn of Cullen’s marriage) riding into Cheyenne with young Ezra (will he one day expose the truth about “Bishop Dutson”?) at her side and the wooden church steeple perched in the back of her wagon.  She spots Eva wandering the street, proclaiming that Elam is dead; Eva knows because she felt his spirit pass by.  Meanwhile Louise Ellison, the New York journalist (to whom Durant has offered the editorship of the yet-to-be-started Cheyenne daily newspaper) and Maggie Palmer, the hotel owner who takes no guff from Durant, sit deep in conversation over a drink at the hotel.  Tough, independent women making their own way on the frontier.

AMC has not yet made an announcement regarding a fourth season for Hell On Wheels.  I hope the announcement of a renewal comes soon.  I want to know what happens next, and I don’t want to have to make it up myself.

Note:  On November 14, AMC announced its renewal of Hell on Wheels for a fourth season next summer, expanding from ten to thirteen episodes.

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