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Star Trek – The Paradise Syndrome (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

As with Elaan of Troyius, it feels like The Paradise Syndrome casts an awfully long shadow for such a simply awful episode.

Much like Elaan of Troyius before it, The Paradise Syndrome marks out what will become a particular subgenre of Star Trek episode. To be fair, Elaan of Troyius had a much greater influence; it demonstrated that the basic “Enterprise ferries diplomats” plot from Journey to Babel was something that could be repeated, throwing a healthy helping of “our hero falls for an alien princess” into the mix. In contrast, the basic template defined by The Paradise Syndrome is a lot more specific.

Going Native American.

Going Native American.

The Paradise Syndrome effectively posits a “what if…?”, wondering what might happen if Kirk gave up adventuring to settle down into a more mundane existence. It is an idea that Star Trek: The Next Generation would revisit to much greater effect in The Inner Light. It is also the basic template employed by Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II during the final season of Star Trek: Voyager. It is very rare to point to Voyager and argue that it executed an idea much better than the original Star Trek, but this is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

The Paradise Syndrome is also (and unavoidably) a clumsy racist misfire of an episode.

"That'll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better."

“That’ll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better.”

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The X-Files Reviews Master List

Our X-Files reviews are now more-or-less update, covering twenty-three years of the franchise and related materials.

Somebody got in contact with me to point out that there is not a complete list anywhere on the site of all the reviews and all the supplemental material in a rough “reading order” for somebody looking to get a sense of just what this project covered. So here that is. Think of it as a rough table of contents for our X-Files coverage, including every episode and various other goodies – crossovers, tangents, best-of lists, sister series, projects involving key creative personal.

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The ordering on the list is approximate at best, but it does offer a sense of how various pieces of coverage relate to one another. As one might expect, the fourth and fifth seasons were very much the “peak” of the show and its coverage, with the various threads getting more esoteric from that point onward.

Just a quick thanks to everybody who read these pieces, commented upon them and engaged with them. Thanks to everybody who pointed me in good directions, and those who offered constructive criticism. I hope you enjoy. I’ll be back when the show it.

xfiles-jesouhaite28a

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Star Trek – Elaan of Troyius (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The strangest thing about Elaan of Troyius is just how influential the episode is.

In many respects, Elaan of Troyius codified Journey to Babel as a genre of Star Trek episode unto itself, the kind of story where the crew find themselves assigned the task of ferrying foreign dignitaries around while intrigue and pseudo-science happens around them. This would become something of a template in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, even carrying over to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Lonely Among Us, Loud as a Whisper, The Price, The Forsaken, Remember.

The Dohlman wants YOU!

The Dohlman wants YOU!

However, in that respect, Elaan of Troyius was simply extrapolating from Journey to Babel by demonstrating that the franchise could employ this basic storytelling model with some frequency. The innovations in Elaan of Troyius are in grafting a “sexy alien babe” narrative into that existing “ferry around” template, which would lead to future stories like The Perfect Mate, Precious Cargo or Bound. In some respects, it was prefigured by Mudd’s Women, an earlier episode about women who exert an unnatural influence over our male lead(s).

The influence of Elaan of Troyius over the rest of the franchise is quite simply astounding. Particularly given how terrible it is.

Elas, my love, it is time to go...

Elas, my love, it is time to go…

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Non-Review Review: The Shallows

The Shallows has a pretty great high concept that it stretches just far enough that it begins to creak, but not so far that it snaps back in the audience’s face.

The Shallows is very much a pulpy creature feature horror film, with a healthy dash of tourist anxieties thrown in for good measure. It is a film about a young surfer who finds herself stranded on a rock about two hundred metres from shore as she is menaced by a really determined shark. It is very much a high-tension high-stakes survival thriller, one that lends itself to pithy summaries like Jaws meets Phone Booth or Buried, where the part of Iraq is played by a menacing computer-generated shark.”

Still waters...

Still waters…

It is an absurd set up to sustain across a ninety-minute runtime, and it is to the credit of The Shallows that the movie realises this. The Shallows never resists the absurdity of its premise. It never hesitates or second-guesses itself. The film moves incredibly quickly, recognising that any moment where the tension slips is a moment at which the audience might begin question the underlying assumptions that hold the film together. Like its animal antagonist, The Shallows understands that it needs to keep moving forward if it is to survive.

The result is a survival horror movie less interested in subverting or deconstructing classic genre tropes than it is revelling in the pulpy possibilities of a story like this. The Shallows is much stronger for that.

Oh buoy...

Oh buoy…

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Star Trek – Spectre of the Gun (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Star Trek is dead.

Not in a literal or technical sense. The show had been brought back from the brink of cancellation, offered a last-minute reprieve by NBC following a number high-profile fan campaigns. As far as outside observers were concerned, Star Trek lived. Kirk and Spock would continue their voyages into the space, the production team offering new and exciting interstellar adventures for the delectation of the audience at home. The execution had been stayed, Star Trek was back on television for another season.

End of the line.

End of the line.

However, the show had been mortally wounded. Star Trek was clearly not a top priority for NBC. The show was moved to the infamous “graveyard slot” of Fridays at 10pm. The budget was slashed even further. Most of the top tier creative talent left, including veteran producers Dorothy Fontana and Gene L. Coon along with creator Gene Roddenberry. Tensions were simmering behind the scenes. Even before NBC cut the season order to twenty-four episodes later in the season, it was clear that the series was on its last legs.

Star Trek was very much in limbo. Indeed, looking at third season as a whole, many such analogies suggest themselves. Star Trek was a show limping and lurching towards its own funeral, hobbled and humbled by forced outside of its control. These creative problems bubbled through the production into the finished product, with much of the third season inheriting a haggard and defeated disposition. There is a funereal tone to a lot of the third season, distinct even from the Lovecraftian horror that bubbled through the show’s earliest episodes.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

Spectre of the Gun is part of that funereal tone, although it is also something different. Spectre of the Gun was the first episode of the season to be produced, although it was shuffled into the sixth broadcast slot. To be fair, this rescheduling seems appropriate; Spectre of the Gun aired both the week of Halloween and one day shy of the eighty-seventh anniversary of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The episode has a haunted quality to it, a more mournful horror than that on display in the franchise’s previous “Halloween episode”, Catspaw.

In some ways, there is an interesting contrast between the first episode of the third season to be produced and the first episode of the third season to air. Both Spectre of the Gun and Spock’s Brain speak to the grim realities of the third season, offering a taste of the anxieties simmering through the show. Both seem to acknowledge that Star Trek is a shell of its former self, whether in the half-remembered ghost town of Spectre of the Gun or the brainless Spock shuffling his way through Spock’s Brain. The only difference is that Spectre of the Gun is a good episode.

Men of mist-ery.

Men of mist-ery.

Death stalks through Spectre of the Gun. Seeking to confront the Melkotians, Kirk and his crew beam down to a formless world that is nothing more than swirling clouds of gas. When they find themselves transported to Tombstone, the sky is an ominous red and the Earps are cast as horsemen of the apocalypse. The world seems hollow; the sound stage is incomplete. Time ticks down, albeit to a fictional five o’clock deadline rather than the historical three o’clock shout out. During the final confrontation, the wind howls as if the world itself is screaming in anguish.

Spectre of the Gun confronts Kirk with a world of phantoms. It evokes a world long vanished into fading memory, populated by characters who died long before. It traps Kirk and his crew in what is effectively a death trap, cutting off all of their narrative options as it marches them inexorably towards a bloody finale. It is even written by a ghost, with Lee Cronin a convenient fiction allowing former producer Gene L. Coon the chance to write a few scripts for a show he had already departed and which was not long for this world. The setting is even called “Tombstone.”

Even the newspaper is in on it!

Even the newspaper is in on it!

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek Beyond

Early in Star Trek Beyond, James Tiberius Kirk states that he doesn’t celebrate birthdays.

This is, of itself, a knowing reference to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fans will recognise the nod immediately, as Doctor Leonard McCoy stops by for a birthday drink to reflect on what growing up actually means. It is one of several knowing homages that populate the film, acknowledgements of the franchise’s legacy and longevity. However, there is also a sense of truth to Kirk’s confusion. How exactly do you mark a milestone like a fiftieth anniversary, particularly for a cultural behemoth like the Star Trek franchise.

Bridge commander.

Bridge commander.

This is a question that will need to be asked with increasing frequency in this era of belated sequels and franchise reboots and recycled properties. The current entertainment ecosystem means that more and more franchises are living to ripe old ages, intellectual properties that need to mark the milestones as they pass. Indeed, the fiftieth anniversary of the Star Trek franchise comes only three years after the fiftieth anniversary of a revived Doctor Who. That was one year after James Bond hit his fifty years on screen with Skyfall.

This is to say nothing of the anniversaries that fall either side of that big five-oh. Characters like Batman and Superman are over seventy-five years old. Films like Jurassic Park and Independence Day are over twenty. These are milestones. It seems appropriate that we treat these milestones as anniversaries or birthdays, given how multimedia has come to treat intellectual property as a living thing – something growing and cultivated, something engaging with the changing world around it and with its own history.

Down to Earth.

Down to Earth.

So, how exactly do you celebrate a fiftieth anniversary for a franchise? Do you make a big occasion of it? Do you launch a thematic meditation on its core values? Do you deconstruct it so that you might reconstruct it? Do you add to the mythos? Do you revel in the continuity? Do you simply try to offer a reminder of what fans loved about the property in the first place? It is a delicate balancing act, and Star Trek Beyond struggles with it. It tries very hard to be all of these things and more, to the point that it can feel both overstuffed and underwhelming.

To be fair, there is a sense that Star Trek Beyond is somewhat hobbled by its format. Star Trek is a franchise that has always thrived on television more than in film. Various critics and producers and franchise veterans have argued repeatedly that Star Trek is a franchise that lives on television, that as exciting as the films might be that they are ultimately as supplemental as a mid-episode log update. The essence of Star Trek is in the continuity of a week-to-week television show, something that by its nature cannot be replicated in a film franchise with a new installment every few years.

He ain't heavy, he's my Vulcan.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my Vulcan.

In some respects, this handicaps Star Trek Beyond. The film strains to be all things to all people. Director Justin Lin, working along with writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, packs the script with heavy thematic dialogue and loving references to the franchise’s history. Star Trek Beyond is packed with deep (and loving) cuts from the franchise’s fifty-year history, but the two-hour runtime and the demands of blockbuster storytelling serve to hem in these elements of the narratives.

In contrast, Star Trek Beyond works best when it is content to be its own thing, when it is willing to go its own way and take advantage of its own unique position in the larger Star Trek canon. A seemingly minor revelation about the personal life of Hikaru Sulu services to be one of the most progressive creative decisions that the franchise has made in twenty years, a credit to the entire production team. In terms of storytelling, the reboot has been lucky to benefit from a phenomenal cast, and Star Trek Beyond really works when it trusts them to carry the weight.

"Check it out, Chekov..."

“Check it out, Chekov…”

Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk reflecting on the strain of command and the weight of his obligations, perhaps reflecting the weight that the production team must feel given the demands placed upon them by fandom expectations. This is a film that finds itself wrestling and grappling with fifty years of what has effectively become an American mythology, a set of iconography and imagery familiar to people who have never even watched a full episode. That is a lot for a single film to bear, and it is to the credit of the production team that they invite that upon themselves.

At the same time, the sequences in which Star Trek Beyond takes flight are those at which it feels confident enough to move under its own power. Perhaps that is the best way to mark the franchise’s fiftieth anniversary, celebrating what makes this iteration of the franchise unique and pushing it boldly forward instead of looking backwards. Continue reading

Non-Review Review: The BFG

The BFG works better as setting and setpieces than it does as a story.

The first half of the film is largely episodic in nature, allowing director Steven Spielberg the opportunity to craft a delightful fantasia built upon the work of Roald Dahl. The world that The BFG builds through motion capture and computer-generated imagery combined with models and sets is quite striking. As befits an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, the film is rich in imagination. The first half of the film often feels like a child in a candy store, wandering with its protagonist from one magical set piece to the next.

Keeping it handy...

Keeping it handy…

It is enchanting in a way that evokes the best of Spielberg’s output, the wonder and imagination that has inspired a whole generation of filmmakers. More than that, Spielberg controls the camera with a deft ease that helps viewers to get a sense of why he is so often copied and so rarely equalled. For its first half, The BFG is pure and whimsical Steven Spielberg. Indeed, the film has a somewhat understated eighties setting, which serves to underscore the sense that Spielberg is consciously reconnecting with his crowd-pleasing blockbuster phase. He does not miss a step.

However, The BFG struggles in its second half once the script tries to impose a story upon these meandering and wandering adventures. Although this second half is very much carried over from the source material, it sacrifices a lot of the whimsy and charm that made the first half so endearing. In fact, although the ending is adapted quite faithfully from the novel, it also feels like a concession to modern big-budget film aesthetics. The BFG is a film that works quite well, up until the point that it chooses to emphasise “big” over “friendly.”

They might be giants.

They might be giants.

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