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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 3, Episode 16 (“Apocrypha”)

I’m back on The X-Cast this week, to cover the second-part of the late third-season mythology two-parter Apocrypha.

Picking up where Piper Maru left off, this conclusion finds Mulder and Scully continuing their separate investigations. Mulder is chasing down the missing tape from Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip while Scully is dealing with the fallout from the assassination attempt on Assistant Director Walter Skinner that brings her face-to-face with the man who killed her sister. Justice, legacy and guilt are all major preoccupations, tying into the broader themes of the season as a whole.

Once again, a pleasure to substitute in for Tony Black as host of The X-Cast for an episode, and absolutely thrilled to be joined by the great Christopher Irish from The X-Files Lexicon.

The truth is in here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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Maniac (Review)

Maniac is Inception meets Cloud Atlas, filtered through a prism of eighties retrofuturism.

That is to say that Maniac will not be for everybody. Indeed, there will be very many people for whom Maniac will simply not work, seeming too weird, too strange and too esoteric. Indeed, it often seems like Maniac is being weird for the sake of being weird, often populating even fairly standard character- or dialogue- driven scenes with small uncanny elements like a foul-mouthed purple robotic koala or a mostly-unseen alien ambassador with a “beautiful blue exoskeleton.” These elements often exist for their own sake. Even when they serve as symbolism, they are often deliberately obtuse.

No Stone unturned.

However, the surreal and contradictory imagery that populates Maniac is a large part of what makes the series so interesting. The bizarre dream-like imagery is very much at the core of Maniac, a bizarre fantasia where everything might possibly be a stand-in for something else or might simply have been plucked half-formed from the imagination with no deeper meaning. Maybe the beautiful alluring alien represents the hawk that a young boy took into his room; maybe the alien represents the predator brother that a young man wants to protect. Maybe sometimes a beautiful blue alien is just a beautiful blue alien.

Maniac is sure to be a polarising experience. Marmite for the television era. Indeed, based on early reviews, it already is. However, it is also a brilliant piece of work; inventive, demented, committed, affecting. This kooky cocktail won’t click with every viewer, but it’ll resonate deeply with those drawn in.

Taking the matter in hand.

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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 3, Episode 15 (“Piper Maru”)

Having recovered from the madness that was The X-Cast Live, The X-Cast is back to its regular schedule.

I’m subbing in for Tony this week to discuss the third season mythology episode Piper Maru, the first part of a late-season two-parter largely dealing with the fallout from the AnasaziThe Blessing Way and Paper Clip trilogy while also introducing the black oil into the mythology. I’m lucky enough to be joined by Christopher Irish from The X-Files Lexicon.

The truth is in here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Inside Man (Review)

Inside Man is a curious episode.

It is a seventh season episode that feels very much like a first season episode. To be fair, this is perhaps par for the course with any long-running series approaching a definite ending. Both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine got a little nostalgic in their final seasons. The Next Generation neatly bookended Encounter at Farpoint by picking up on the dangling thread of Q’s trial of humanity in All Good Things…, while Deep Space Nine revisited first season ideas like the “one hundred” in Chimera or Quark mistakenly thinking that he was replacing Zek in The Dogs of War.

“I’d counsel against that.”

Star Trek: Voyager was always going to be a little bit more nostalgic than most, given that the nature of the show involved a long journey back towards the familiar and the recognisable. The closer that Voyager got to home, the stronger the urge to look backwards. The seventh season of Voyager evokes the early seasons in a number of ways, such as the manner in which Repression tries to resurrect the Maquis conflict and even brings in a guest star last seen in Learning Curve or the surprise return of Joseph Carey as a guest star in Friendship One.

However, Inside Man has its own very strange nostalgia at its core. The episode builds on sixth season episodes like Pathfinder or Life Line, even including a number of recurring guest stars from those earlier episodes. However, its tone and its plot elements feel like they belong a much earlier script. Inside Man is an episode that treats the Ferengi as semi-serious antagonists who would murder more than a hundred people for a profit, which ignores a lot of their development on Deep Space Nine and jumps right back to their characterisation in early Next Generation episodes like The Last Outpost or Peak Performance.

“I mean, to be fair, they also couldn’t outwit the Kazon.”

However, at the core of the episode is a plot device that the series largely moved past in its second season, and one which feels strangely out of place on what amounts to the home stretch of Voyager. The plot of Inside Man revolves around a promise to get the ship and crew home ahead of schedule, the kind of promise that was frequently dangled in front of the crew in earlier episodes like Eye of the Needle, Cold Fire and False Profits. While it would be teased in later episodes like Hope and Fear or Bliss, it was never with the same intensity.

The irony with these earlier stories was that the audience understood, on some level,how unlikely it was that the ship and crew would be getting home. After all, the entire premise of Voyager was that it was a starship stranded on the far side of the galaxy, isolated from familiar support systems. To bring the ship home would represent a complete betrayal of the premise, even more than downplaying the tension with the Maquis or completely ignoring questions about which set of rules the crew would follow. If Voyager brought the ship home in a random episode in those first seasons, it would be a catastrophic admission of defeat.

Just a Reg-ular Barclay.

In Inside Man, a slight variation on the same central tension exists. Any audience member with any level of televisual literacy would understand that the ship and crew would be returning home at the end of the seventh season; this was the end of Voyager, and that ending had to involve the fulfillment of the show’s basic premise. However, given the show’s conservatism, it was highly unlikely that the crew would be getting home in such an early episode and certainly not as part of a plot involving the Ferengi. Inside Man is the most obvious sort of shell game, where there’s nothing hidden under any of the cups.

However, what’s most striking about Inside Man is that the script seems almost self-aware. The episode is glib and wry, repeatedly seeming like an extended joke being played by the savvy audience and the smirking writers on the series itself. Inside Man is based around the promise that the crew might be returning home, but is immediately established to the audience as nothing more than an empty hustle. The cruel irony (and the most wry punchline) is that the characters themselves remain in the dark even after the con is long over.

Getting into her head.

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Listen In To The X-Cast Live! All Day Saturday!

That mad man Tony Black over at The X-Cast has done something completely crazy.

He is doing a twenty-four hour live X-Files podcast. However, it’s okay. He’s doing it for charity, to raise money and awareness for Alzheimer’s Society. You can still donate to the cause, which is very worthy of your support.

I’m thrilled to be joining Tony at a couple of points during the day. The full schedule is below, and Tony’s put together a fantastic line-up for a great cause. In the meantime, you can listen to the podcast at Mixlr. It will be kicking off at 9am BST and running straight through for twenty-four hours.

https://mixlr.com/the-x-cast/embedThe X-Cast is on Mixlr

 

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Star Trek: Voyager – Critical Care (Review)

Critical Care is the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager attempting to be archetypal Star Trek.

To be fair, Voyager had done this before. When Jeri Taylor took over the show during its third season, she steered it away from the disaster of the Kazon arc and towards a more conventional style of Star Trek storytelling. Many of the episodes of the later seasons could easily have been repurposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Enterprise without changing much beyond the characters’ names; think of Warlord, Scientific Method, Random Thoughts, Waking Moments.

What’s up, Doc?

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Indeed, many of the best episodes of Voyager had this broad and generic quality to them, offering something resembling an archetypal distillation of Star Trek for audiences. Remember and Memorial were both stunning explorations of cultural memory and Holocaust denial that could arguably have worked with any Star Trek cast. Blink of an Eye was a beautiful science-fiction parable that was more about Star Trek itself than Voyager. Even Nemesis could have easily worked with Riker or O’Brien or Tucker as easily as it did with Chakotay.

However, there are also points when these attempts to create “archetypal Star Trek” feels cynical and exploitative, the writing staff very cynically offering audiences something that is designed to meet as many of the vaguely defined aesthetic qualities of Star Trek, but without any substance underneath it. This happens repeatedly during the seventh season of Voyager, when it seems like the production team understand what Star Trek looks and feels like enough to offer a passable approximation, but don’t understand the underlying mechanics enough to replicate that ineffable feeling.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost home.”

Like a lot of seventh season episodes, Critical Care is couched in the trappings of Star Trek but without any substance to group it. On the surface, Critical Care is classic “social commentary” storytelling, the type of allegorical narrative exemplified by stories like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or The High Ground. It is an episode about the horrors of contemporary healthcare, transposed to a distant alien world where Voyager can draw some very broad parallels for the audience watching at home. This is, on a very superficial level, what Star Trek is to a large number of fans.

Unfortunately, these touches do not add up to anything particularly insightful or compelling, Critical Care providing observations on contemporary American healthcare that amount to “this is pretty bad, isn’t it?” without anything resembling actual engagement. The result is a shell of an episode, a missed opportunity, and a pale imitation of the franchise’s best social commentary.

“What is up, Doc?”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Repression (Review)

There is something almost obligatory about Repression, as if the production team have arrived at the point in every season where they are obligated to do a Tuvok-centric story but without any particularly strong ideas for that Tuvok-centric story. It is there because Tim Russ is a credited lead and Tuvok is part of the ensemble, and because there is a twenty-six episode season order to fill. It is not there because any writer thought that there was a story that needed to be told with Tuvok, some part of his psyche that needed to be illuminated.

The seventh season is populated with episodes like this, stories built around particularly characters in the most archetypal of fashions. Star Trek: Voyager is frequently criticised for recycling premises from other Star Trek series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the show is less often criticised for simply repeating itself. The supporting characters on Voyager don’t really have arcs, often simply having a handful of stories that the series dutifully cycles through on rotation.

“Another fine mess(hall) you’ve gotten us into, Tuvok…”

On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a marathon of character-centric episodes would reveal the slow and gradual evolution of the cast. Julian Bashir changes and evolves over his time on the series, from the generic any-character-will-do narratives of The Passenger and Melora into the weirder and more awkward Distant Voices through to his emergence as a distinctive person in Hippocratic Oath, Our Man Bashir and The Quickening. Bashir is not the same character in What You Leave Behind that he was in Emissary, and watching a chain of episodes based around Bashir would explain and explore that growth.

In contrast, a character-centric marathon on Voyager would be a much more frustrating experience, as the characters inevitably go through the same motion and repeat the same plots. This is particularly true in the seventh season episodes, where the obligatory character-focused episodes underscore how little these characters have actually and fundamentally changed since the first season. In Nightingale, Harry Kim is still insecure and lacking in experience. In Lineage and Prophecy, B’Elanna Torres is once again wrestling with her Klingon heritage. In Drive, Tom Paris is once again the careless flyboy who learns about responsibility.

“The more things don’t change…”

At the same time, Tuvok has always represented a very particular challenge for the writers, in that he doesn’t even really have an archetypal story in the same way that Torres or Kim or Paris does. Tuvok doesn’t have a “lesson” that he needs to learn over and over again, or a default factory setting that he can fall back to in order to learn that lesson. At least at the end of Extreme Risk or Juggernaut, Torres had learned that she should not let her more destructive impulses guide her actions, even if she would forget it and learn again. This allows for a character arc that can be repeated and reiterated. In contrast, Tuvok was generally well-adjusted and well-balanced.

As a result, stories featuring Tuvok tend to take something away from him and watch him struggle to return to normality. As a Vulcan, Tuvok is often stripped of his Vulcan reserve and forced to recover it. The results can be interesting and compelling, with Meld and Gravity ranking among the best episodes that Voyager ever produced. However, these episodes can also feel very trite and formulaic, often reducing Tuvok to a passenger in stories nominally focused on him: he drives a lot of the plot in Random Thoughts, but Torres in the focal character; Riddles is about something that happens to Tuvok, but focuses on Neelix.

Looking at things from a new perspective.

Repression is notably the show’s last Tuvok-centric story. It is also perhaps the most archetypal. As with episodes like Nightingale or Lineage, it is a collection of familiar tropes for a supporting cast member trotted out one last time before the show crosses the finish line. Repression is an episode that has clearly been assembled from a variety of earlier episodes focused on Tuvok, right down to plot points and individual scenes or costume choices; it is Random Thoughts meets Meld, with an extended final-act homage to Worst Case Scenario. All of which reduces Tuvok to a passenger in his own story.

This is a shame, as Repression works about as well as any episode built around its core premise has any right to it. Like Drive before it, there’s a certain pulpy thrill to its core premise that fits comfortably within the heightened retro sci-fi surroundings of Voyager. The story of a detective who is investigating himself, spreading subversive ideas through telepathic assault, Repression is a patently absurd bit of television which feels very much of a piece with earlier stories like Cathexis or Macrocosm or Darkling or In the Flesh. It works much better as a trashy late-night B-movie than as a character-centric narrative.

There’ll be Meld to pay for this.

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