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Star Trek: Voyager – Nightingale (Review)

During the production of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, producer Michael Piller laid down a template for Star Trek storytelling that became a large (and underrated) part of the series’ successful. Following on from the unfocused and clumsy first two seasons, Piller advocated from a strong character-driven storytelling sensibility, advocating for a narrative structure whereby each episode would reveal or inform something interesting about a given character, quite apart from any phenomenon of the week or interesting alien species.

It was a template that was so sturdy that Piller himself could open the season by applying it to Wesley Crusher in Evolution. Ronald D. Moore was perhaps the first writer to really understand the appeal of the structure, applying it to Worf in The Bonding and Sins of the Father. Even when episodes weren’t about the main characters, they still offered some insight. Tin Man, Déjà Q and The Defector were both episodes focused on a guest star, but that guest star was largely seen through Data’s eyes.

Captain Kim.

There were stories that didn’t adhere to this template. Often, like in Hollow Pursuits and Yesterday’s Enterprise, they focused on a guest star rather than the leads. However, these episodes were the exception that proved the rule. Even the less successful episodes of the season, like A Matter of Perspective or Ménage à Troi were still elevated above the troubled first and second seasons by this attention to character-driven storytelling. Piller set a template that lasted for the next four seasons, and beyond.

In the middle seasons of Star Trek: Voyager, there was a tension between this template and the demands of contemporary television. The writing staff on Voyager understood the basic rhythms and structure of the template that Piller established, and kept applying it after his departure following Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. Stories like Nemesis and Timeless found a way to apply that template to even neglected characters like Chakotay and Kim. The only issue was that the template felt increasingly outdated.

He’s (Nee)lixed.

Modern television was moving on. The X-Files and Babylon 5 were embracing sprawling epic television storytelling. Television series like The Sopranos and Oz were adopting a more novelistic approach to the medium. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was consciously moving away from self-contained episodes in favour of longer-form storytelling, most notably the six-parter that ran from A Time to Stand through to Sacrifice of Angels. There was a sense that, even applied skillfully and correctly, the Piller template reflected an older mode of television storytelling.

One of the big issues with the seventh season of Voyager is a palpable feeling that even this foundational block of Star Trek storytelling dating back to The Next Generation has begun to erode. The seventh season of Voyager is packed with stories that look and feel loosely that familiar Piller template, broad narratives focusing on individual characters and big ideas wherein the characters develop or discover something about themselves. However, these episodes also tend to look like they were constructed from a faded photocopy of that classic blueprint.

In-tractor-able.

This is reflected in the broad “Star-Trek-iness” of stories like Drive or Critical Care, episodes that gesture toward social commentary while working hard to avoid actually saying anything potentially engaging. It is also reflected in character-driven episodes like Imperfection or Body and Soul, which superficially resemble the template that Piller laid out for telling a good self-contained Star Trek story, but failing to connect all of the pieces in a way that makes any real sense.

Nightingale is perhaps the season’s best example of this, for so many reasons. It is the last Voyager episode to focus on the character of Harry Kim, but returns to what has been his standard character arc since Demon. It has a strong central throughline about the importance of taking command, and the responsibilities of being in authority, but it also never allows these elements to cohere into a strong central thesis. It contains stock Star Trek elements like an alien war and the challenge of non-interference, but doesn’t do anything with them. It is simply a mess.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Waking Moments (Review)

Waking Moments feels very much like a first or second season episode of Star Trek: Voyager that somehow entered production in the middle of the fourth season.

A lot of this is down to the simple texture of the episode. Waking Moments centres around a decidedly “weird” alien species, a touch that recalls the early mysteries of Delta Quadrant life suggested by episodes like Phage, The Cloud, Heroes and Demons, Cathexis and even Emanations. These are aliens that do not conform to standard Star Trek logic, stalking their prey through dreams rather than with advanced technology. In fact, the emphasis on dreams in Waking Moments harks back to the vague New Age sentiment of Michael Piller’s time on Voyager.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

In fact, Waking Moments returns to a very New Age cliché version of Chakotay. Following on directly from Mortal Coil, Chakotay is once again repeating “ah-koo-chee-moya” and talking about “vision quests.” He mentions his father as a connection to his Native American heritage for the first time since Basics, Part I, and even evoked Tattoo in discussing his rejection of shared activities in his youth. Waking Moments feels like an episode that was originally written while Michael Piller was overseeing the show, but has finally made it to air.

Of course, Waking Moments feels rather retrograde in other ways. It is a very clumsy ensemble piece that treats tired old plot twists as innovative and exciting, moving along at a leaden pace without any sense of what makes this story interesting or compelling in its own right. Waking Moments is a surprisingly tiring piece of television.

An artist's impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

An artist’s impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Extinction (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

In many respects, The Xindi and Anomaly opened the third season as if it were the first season of a new show. In particular, Anomaly built consciously and cleverly off of Fight or Flight and Strange New World in providing a solid foundation for the year ahead. The comparison works quite well. By that logic, Extinction and Rajiin serve as Unexpected and Terra Nova. They are two of the weakest episodes of the season, harmed by their close proximity to the start of the year. Anybody wanting to reach Twilight or Damage has to get through Extinction and Rajiin.

In many respects, this early lag in the third season demonstrates just how inexperienced the creative team were at long-form serialised storytelling. The only arc comparable to the Xindi arc in the entire Star Trek franchise is the Dominion War arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There, the writers were clever enough to launch the new status quo with an unheralded six-episode interconnected story. The Dominion War had its share of duds, but the opening salvo was magnificently confident.

Archer's not feeling himself lately...

Archer’s not feeling himself lately…

In contrast, the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise suffers out of the gate. The Xindi and Anomaly do good work setting up plot points and character beats that will be of use later in the season, but there is no real sense that the writing staff has any idea what that use might be at this point of the season. Two episodes into the third season, the show is already back to fairly formulaic adventures that stand quite cleanly alone. It is not too difficult to imagine Extinction or Rajiin as episodes in any other season – albeit with some slight tinkering.

However, this is only part of the problem. Long-form storytelling need not become a burden. There is a great deal of value to be had in drifting away from a serialised story arc to tell a quality standalone tale. Unfortunately, Extinction is not a quality standalone tale. In fact, it is one of the worst episodes of Enterprise ever produced. Airing it as the third episode of a bold new season feels like a poor choice.

"C'mon, wouldn't you like to go back to being a torturing and almost genocidal human?"

“C’mon, wouldn’t you like to go back to being a torturing and almost genocidal human?”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Horizon (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Horizon takes us backwards.

Early in the episode, the Enterprise is redirected to investigate a strange interstellar phenomenon. “This system’s almost thirty light years behind us,” Mayweather observes. Archer responds, “Admiral Forrest assures me it’s only a temporary detour.” This is largely what Horizon feels like, a journey back to the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Horizon is a deathly dull episode, but it would be more tolerable had it aired early in the first season. At least it is not as offensive as Unexpected or Terra Nova.

"A Travis episode? I'll be right there!"

“A Travis episode? I’ll be right there!”

There is something particularly regressive about Horizon, as if the episode is a relic of the show that Enterprise used to be. It focuses on human space exploration outside of Starfleet, as promised in episodes like Terra Nova or Fortunate Son. It gives the audience another glimpse into “boomer” life and even opens with Mayweather relaxing in “the sweet spot”, the first time that the audience has seen that location since Broken Bow. Even the plot feels like a retread of first season episodes – a strange hybrid of Fortunate Son and Silent Enemy.

The character beats are no better. Horizon struggles to construct a credible character-driven story for Mayweather. Unable to figure anything out, the show decides to saddle him with the same character arc that Hoshi repeated in episodes like Fight or Flight, Sleeping Dogs or Vox Sola. The problems are compounded by the script’s lack of trust in Anthony Montegomery to carry the himself, leading to an extended (and dull) first act and a padded (and dull) subplot. If Judgment made a sterling defense of Enterprise, Horizon is a damning argument for the prosecution.

Freight stuff...

Freight stuff…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Communicator (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the biggest problems with positioning Star Trek: Enterprise as a prequel is that the original Star Trek was very much a product of its time. It is very difficult to line-up a television show broadcast in the early years of the twenty-first century with a series that was produced towards the end of the sixties. It is a completely different world, and so the show itself must inevitably be completely different.

This reflects itself in the production design of Enterprise. One of the more frequent fan complaints about the series concerns the design of the new ship. After all, it doesn’t look like anything Matt Jefferies would design. If anything, it looks like the missing link between a modern submarine and the Defiant from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. All the pastels and mood lighting have been replaced with functional grey and buttresses. Kirk’s Enterprise and Archer’s Enterprise speak to two different aesthetics.

"What we've got here is failure to communicate..."

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…”

Of course, it is possible to land a little closer to the classic design as Scott Chambliss demonstrated with his work on JJ Abrams’ reboot. Then again, this only reinforces the point. The general mood and tone of design when Star Trek hit cinema screens in 2009 was markedly different from the mood and tone of design when Broken Bow first aired in 2001. It just so happened that one was more compatible with Jefferies’ original vision than the other. (And even then, Chambliss’ update is markedly different.)

However, while the design of the ship itself is a handy indicator of just how difficult it is to line up a show produced in the first decade of a new millennium to a show produced before man walked on the moon, there are more substantial cultural and social differences at play. The Communicator is another second season Star Trek mash-up, this time taking the ending of A Piece of the Action and offering a perfect example of how Enterprise could never be an entirely comfortable companion to classic Star Trek.

"Westmore's not gonna like this..."

“Westmore’s not gonna like this…”

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