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“The Price You Pay for Being Successful”: How “The Empire Strikes Back” Was One of the First Blockbusters of the Eighties…

Star Wars is often discussed in the context of the late seventies, whether the political context of the Vietnam War or George Lucas’ status as an up and coming director alongside the likes of Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg or even just the way in which it shifted movie-making away from the new Hollywood model towards the blockbuster template.

Despite all of this, it is often overlooked just how firmly Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is rooted in the context of the early eighties. There are obviously any number of reasons for this. Most obviously, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi consciously retreated back to the late seventies trappings of the original film, right down to its decision to restage the Vietnam War with adorable toyetic teddy bears in the place of the Viet Cong. There’s also a sense in which the cultural markers of The Empire Strikes Back are more subtle than those of Star Wars.


Watched from a modern perspective, The Empire Strikes Back seems to herald the arrival of the new decade. Like all great sequels, it broadens both the scale and scope of Star Wars, but it also pushes the franchise forward. Even beyond the now iconic revelations about family lineage and power dynamics, The Empire Strikes Back radically redefines what it means to be a Star Wars film. It is no longer about navigating the moral ambiguity of an uncertain time, wrestling with the spectre of American might. It is instead about exploring social power structures, of finding one’s place in system.

The Empire Strikes Back might just be the first truly great eighties movie.

A little father-son outreach.

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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 – Fortunate Son (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 January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Fortunate Son is a solid premise ruined by an overly simplistic execution.

One of the more interesting aspects of Star Trek: Enterprise is a chance to return to the pioneering spirit of the original Star Trek. It’s an excuse to imagine what the early years of humanity’s exploration of space must have looked like. More than any other spin-off except Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this show lends itself to world-building and expansion. What does space look like before the Federation was established? How was it regulated before a gigantic conglomeration of space-faring races decided to impose their own laws and rules upon the spaceways?

Well, that sucked the air out of the room...

Well, that sucked the air out of the room…

Broken Bow made a big deal about how the Enterprise was the first human ship capable of travelling at warp five. In essence, it is the beginning of the Star Trek franchise as fans know it. The speed that engine brings and the distance the ship can cover serve as a gateway to the wider Star Trek universe. So, logically, if Enterprise is the first step in that direction, the ship must be emerging into a universe that looks radically different – a culture that is very distinct from that depicted on the other Star Trek spin-offs. With slower engines, fewer ships, less known about the universe, this should be an entirely different world.

Fortunate Son touches on this idea a little bit, throwing Archer into conflict with the crew of a long-haul space freighter over intergalactic piracy. The problem with the episode is that it feels very much like Archer is arguing from a position grounded in the Star Trek franchise as it is yet to develop, rather than the current status quo. In his debates with Ryan, Archer gets to be right for two contrived reasons: Ryan is written as an idiot; and Archer’s philosophy applies to the status quo of over five hundred other episodes.

Beaten to the punch...

Beaten to the punch…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Terra Nova (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 January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Terra Nova is a rather unfortunate fifth episode for Star Trek: Enterprise. The show is in its first season, so there are bound to be mistakes and missteps along the way. However, Unexpected and Terra Nova provide a one-two punch of unfortunate back-to-back episodes, shows that aren’t just the result of an uncertain creative time stumbling while trying to find their groove. Like Unexpected directly before it, Terra Nova is an episode that is toxic from the ground up.

It is, in short, precisely the kind of story that you don’t want to tell about mankind’s first adventures into the cosmos. While the episode very much evokes the mood and style of classic Star Trek, it also inherits all the franchise’s worst colonial impulses. This is an episode that belongs alongside the more ill-judged entries in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us.

He's got faith, faith of the heart...

He’s got faith, faith of the heart…

Terra Nova takes a fascinating starting point – something very intrinsically tied to the premise of Enterprise – and twists it into a show about our human protagonists dealing with silly off-world people. Those silly off-world people happen to be humans, who need to be reminded of their humanity, in such a way that our protagonists can feel proud and superior about how advanced and sophisticated they are. Those silly humans who have “gone native” could really learn a lot from our super-advanced heroes.

Terra Nova feels like an episode that sets Star Trek back fourteen years, proof that some of the worst aspects of Roddenberry’s vision of the franchise have endured surprisingly well.

On yer bike, Reed...

On yer bike, Reed…

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