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Doctor Who: Thin Ice (Review)

“How is that a screwdriver?”

“In a very broad sense.”

“Well, how is it sonic?”

“It makes a noise.”

Pilot fish.

Thin Ice is a fairly solid historical adventure, one that takes a fairly conventional Doctor Who template and puts a slightly self-aware spin on it.

As with The Pilot and Smile, there is a decidedly nostalgic quality to Thin Ice. As with the two prior episodes, Thin Ice feels like a conscious throwback to the structure of the Davies era. Moffat’s final season as showrunner has opened with the classic present-future-past triptych that recalls Rose, The End of the World and The Unquiet Dead, or The Christmas Invasion, New Earth and Tooth and Claw or Smith and JonesThe Shakespeare Code and Gridlock. This is a very familiar and comforting pattern.

Hat’s off to him.

As with Smile before it, Thin Ice is built upon a stock plot. A series of mysterious disappearances lead the Doctor and his companion to one inescapable conclusion: there is a monster menacing Regency England. Thin Ice feels very much like the kind of episode that Mark Gatiss has been known to write, an affectionate historical depiction of an iconic chapter in British history like The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern or The Crimson Horror. Indeed, Thin Ice looks lavish, complete with all the costume drama trappings that one might expect.

However, much like Smile, there is a slight twist on the tale. Whereas Smile attempted to subvert the classic “machines gone awry” plot with a clumsy last-minute twist, Thin Ice instead makes a point to weave its commentary and theme through the familiar structure of the episode. Thin Ice might be a very conventional historical monster story, but it engages with themes of race and class that are often under-explored in these stories.

The time travelers who came in from the cold…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.

Luthless.

Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Vis á Vis (Review)

Well, it was nice while it lasted.

The fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager had a nice little strand of continuity running through the fourth season, from the discovery of the relay stations and first contact with the Hirogen in Message in a Bottle through to the reaching of an accord with the Hirogen in The Killing Game, Part II. That six-episode run had demonstrated a remarkable attention to detail on the part of the production team. Even the relatively stand-alone episode Retrospect alluded to the ending of Prey and the threat of the Hirogen lingering from Hunters.

Ch-ch-changes…

However, Vis á Vis represents a return to business as usual for the series. It is a light stand-alone episode that completely eschews any sense of continuity or character development. Credited to production assistant Robert J. Doherty, Vis á Vis feels like a weird throwback to the middle of the second season, a retrograde character-driven episode rooted in a version of Tom Paris that has not existed since Investigations at the absolute latest. The result is a weird body-swapping episode where the regular cast member seems out of character to begin with.

Vis á Vis is an outdated Voyager episode, even beyond the lame body-swap premise.

Grease is not the word.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night (Review)

Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night once again brushes up against the limits of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night is essentially two episodes wrapped up in one. Most basically, it is a character-driven melodrama that focuses on Kira and her relationship to her mother. Dark secrets are unearthed, and betrayals are revealed. Kira finds that she is much closer to Dukat than she once believed, and finds her own moral certainty tested as she confronts the reality of who her mother was and the compromises that she had to navigate in the context of the Cardassian Occupation. It is a bold and provocative episode, daring and unsettling.

Everybody has scars.

However, Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night is also trying to be an exploration of the kind of moral compromises necessary against the backdrop of the Cardassian Occupation, about the toll that such a horrific event inflicts upon a population. It is a tale of sexual slavery and brutality, about manipulation and abuse. It is a tale about power and violence, and how those aspects of an enemy occupation do not always manifest in brute force. This is story about the scars that such horrors leave. This is a clumsy episode, revealing the firm limits that exist within Deep Space Nine.

Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night does not work as well as it should, suggesting that there are some stories that Deep Space Nine simply cannot tell.

Screening her calls.

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Doctor Who: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Change of Heart (Review)

Change of Heart is another good episode that stops short of being a great one.

On paper, Change of Heart is a wonderful premise. Due to expedience, Worf and Jadzia are assigned on a covert mission that eventually leads to the potential recovery of a Cardassian defector. While trekking through a jungle world on their way to meet this high-value asset, a fire fight with the Jem’Hadar leaves Jadzia wounded. Without medical attention, she will bleed to death. As such, Worf finds himself caught between the oath that he swore to Starfleet and his duty to the woman that he loved. That is harrowing drama, right there.

A stain on his record.

The execution is also very solid. Ronald D. Moore is the perfect writer for a script like this, able to balance organic banter with high-stakes drama. David Livingston is a director who can certainly keep a plot moving. While Terry Farrell and Michael Dorn might not make sparks fly, they have an endearing chemistry that plays very well as a married couple. The script for Change of Heart plays to the strengths of its leading performers. It leaps through a lot of contrivances to get to that big central dilemma, but it moves quickly enough that they are not fatal flaws.

However, Change of Heart once again brushes up against the limits of what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can do as a late nineties television series. It is an episode that suffers from the limitations imposed by the pragmatic realities of late nineties television production. Change of Heart is an episode that has very consciously learned from (and evolved beyond) the mistakes of earlier and clumsier episodes like Life Support and Rules of Engagement, but which still suffers because it cannot escape the constraints of contemporary genre television.

That’s a wrap.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Killing Game, Part II (Review)

In some ways, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II feel like a perfect companion piece to Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.

Building upon the high-concept large-scale template established by Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II during the third season, these two two-part episodes established a blockbuster template for Star Trek: Voyager going forward. They solidified Brannon Braga’s vision for the series, and effectively laid out a blueprint for his widescreen spectacle-driven reimagining of the final three seasons. Like Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II before them, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are blockbuster Star Trek.

Time’s up.

Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had produced any number of two-part episodes over the course of their runs. In fact, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II had helped to cement the two-part story as impressive tool in the franchise’s storytelling arsenal. On both VHS and blu ray, these two-part stories were constantly repackaged as mini-movies; Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II, Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II, Chain of Command, Part I and Chain of Command, Part II.

However, Voyager represented a very clear evolution in the way that the production team approached these stories. Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II were the exception that proved the rule, the last holdover of the Michael Piller era. Largely driven by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, the later Voyager two-parters took on a decidedly more blockbuster sensibility. They could easily be packaged as mini feature films, and might even work better in those formats than as two standalone narratives. They were bigger and bolder than earlier two-parters had been.

Holo promises.

Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II provided the model for these big “event” two-parters. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II applied to the Borg in order to offer an even bigger bang for their buck. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II took the ship and crew to their limit to tell a story set over an entire year. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II pushed the idea even further, with UPN opting to show both parts of the story on the same night as something like a television movie. It was a big deal.

Deep Space Nine had broadcast The Way of the Warrior as a television movie, but it was a season premiere and effectively a second (or even third) pilot. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II comprised a high-concept mid-season two parter. They were arguably a stock Voyager episode, only bigger. In the years ahead, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II would follow the same pattern. So would Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II established a trend.

Super evil alien space Nazi.

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