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Star Trek: Voyager – The Gift (Review)

The Gift belongs to a very particular subgenre of Star Trek episodes.

It is an episode that fits comfortably alongside the other second stories of the other fourth seasons, alongside Family on Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Visitor on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Home on Star Trek: Enterprise. It is a relatively quiet and contemplative piece, more rooted in character than plot. In fact, very little of note happens during the episode, even as it is positioned at an important point in the larger run of Star Trek: Voyager following Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II.

Things come to a head.

Things come to a head.

As with FamilyThe Visitor and HomeThe Gift is a breather episode following a more epic adventure. As with Family and Home, The Gift is explicitly about working through the consequences of earlier episodes. Family allowed Jean-Luc Picard to work through the trauma of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, while Home provided an opportunity for Jonathan Archer to make sense of everything that happened between The Expanse and Zero Hour. (Let’s not worry too much about Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II.)

The Gift is an episode of contrasts, driven by the demands of the series rather than its own distinct plot. It is very heavily serialised, playing almost as the third part of Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II; much like Family played as the third part of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. However, there is something very cynical in the use of serialisation in The Gift, as the episode rather transparently exists to transition away from where the show was at the end of Scorpion, Part II towards a more sustainable status quo.

Kes of death to an established character.

Kes of death to an established character.

The Gift is also a tale of arrivals and departures. It is an episode about introducing Seven of Nine to the cast of Voyager, establishing her character arc and setting up her journey across the rest of the series building on her separation from the Borg Collective in Scorpion, Part II. At the same time, it is an episode about the departure of Jennifer Lien from Voyager, bidding farewell to Kes as a result of her exposure to “Fluidic Space” in Scorpion, Part II. There is something quite poetic in that set-up.

However, The Gift is just as much an episode of extremes in terms of quality. The story focusing on Janeway and Seven of Nine is rivetting and compelling, but the thread focusing on Kes plays almost as an afterthought. More than that, the episode’s final act plays as a gigantic cop out, another example of Voyager retreating from some of the bolder ideas in its core concept. The result is a curate’s egg of an episode, a reminder of Voyager‘s discarded potential.

Breakout character.

Breakout character.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Scorpion, Part II (Review)

Scorpion, Part II demonstrates the real strength of the blockbuster two-part episodes scattered across the run of Star Trek: Voyager.

Generally speaking, the two-part episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation suffered from a sense of disharmony. The two parts seldom felt integrated, often feeling quite disconnected from one another. This was most obvious in the cliffhangers bridging the seasons, when the writing staff would take time away from the office before returning to write the second part. Michael Piller famously had no idea what he was going to do with The Best of Both Worlds, Part II when he wrote The Best of Both Worlds, Part I.

Droning on.

Droning on.

Even for the two-part episodes within a given season, there tended to be a disjointedness. Chain of Command, Part I is very much set-up for Chain of Command, Part II, with the second part feeling much stronger (and more substantial) than the first. Birthright, Part I leads into Birthright, Part II, but also features an entirely unrelated subplot that is dropped completely in the second half. Arguably, The Next Generation only really figured out how to properly balance two-parters in its final season, with Gambit, Part I, Gambit, Part II and All Good Things…

In contrast, Voyager does a much better job of balancing its two-parters so that they feel like two halves of a movie rather than an extended first act followed by a compressed second and third act. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II established that template, but Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II demonstrates that it can applied as readily to season-bridging two-parters as to mid-season sweeps episodes. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II integrate beautifully to form an impressive Voyager television movie.

Venting frustration.

Venting frustration.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Scorpion, Part I (Review)

In some ways, Scorpion, Part I is the perfect cap to the third season of Star Trek: Voyager.

The third season has largely seen the show retreating from ideas and concepts that would render it unique in the larger Star Trek canon. Although the first two seasons were hardly radical in terms of storytelling style or substance, Michael Piller did make a conscious effort to build off some of the premises unique to this show. The Kazon might have been a terrible idea in both concept and execution, but they were at least something new. While the second season botched its attempts at serialisation, at least it made the effort.

This is perhaps a metaphor for what Voyager is going to do to the Borg...

This is perhaps a metaphor for what Voyager is going to do to the Borg…

In the third season, the production team seem to have settled upon the idea of producing generic Star Trek, rather than telling stories unique to Voyager. This is something of a mixed blessing. While the third season features a host of forgettable episodes like Warlord and Alter Ego, it features few episodes as soul-destroying as Alliances or Investigations. More than that, episodes like Remember or Distant Origin demonstrate the appeal of producing generic Star Trek stories, ranking among the best episodes that the show has produced to date.

More than that, the production team have consciously pushed the show much closer to the model of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is most obvious in the handling of Q as a character. While Death Wish found something novel and interesting to do with the character after All Good Things…, The Q and the Grey returns the character to his default settings for a cringe-worthy dress-up episode that owes far too much in concept and execution to Q-Pid. There are plenty of other examples.

This might also be a potent metaphor for what Voyager is about to do to the Borg...

This might also be a potent metaphor for what Voyager is about to do to the Borg…

However, Voyager‘s most overt embrace of the legacy of The Next Generation came with the introduction of the Borg. The Borg are in many ways the most iconic creation of the Berman era, perhaps the only new alien species liable to recognised alongside the Klingons or the Romulans or the Vulcans. After all, the Borg were the antagonists of Star Trek: First Contact, the theatrical release intended to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary. Their aesthetic influence can even be felt on Star Trek Beyond, the theatrical release intended to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary.

The Borg made their first appearance at the end of Blood Fever, in a postscript scene that feels like almost like a post-credits tease that arrived ten years too early. The Borg also appeared in Unity, an episode which featured Chakotay encountering the survivors from a disconnected Borg ship desperately trying to reconnect their shared link. However, neither of these episodes featured the Borg Collective, the powerful and single-minded collective consciousness that drives the hive mind.

Building a bridge...

Building a bridge…

So it makes sense that the Borg Collective would appear in full force for Scorpion, Part I, the third season finale and cliffhanger bridging to the fourth season. Once again, this is a creative decision right out of the Next Generation playbook. The Next Generation really cemented its distinct cultural identity with the broadcast of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I at the end of its third season. Part of this was simply down to the fact that it had outpaced the original Star Trek, which only lasted three years. However, part of it was also that the cliffhanger was spectacular television.

Scorpion, Part I is not spectacular television. It is good television. It is a satisfying blockbuster epic, with a strong sense of momentum and some interesting ideas. However, it also smells a little bit of desperation. It feels like Voyager has completely abandoned its own sense of identity and followed the path of least resistance. Insert your own joke there.

Or, you know, don't. Whatever floats your boat.

Or, you know, don’t. Whatever floats your boat.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unity (Review)

The autopsy of the Borg corpse is underway.

– Janeway about sums it up

If the third season of Star Trek: Voyager is about the show embracing its place in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, then it makes sense that the third season would bring the crew into conflict with the Borg. The first two seasons of Voyager had leaned rather heavily upon the mythology of The Next Generation, featuring guest appearances from Q and Riker in Death Wish or Barclay in Projections, not to mention a recurring Cardassian foe and enemies heavily influenced by The Next Generation era Klingons.

However, the first two seasons had made an effort to introduce new and exciting foes for Voyager, new recurring species to reflect that the ship was traveling through an unknown part of space. For all the show featured guest appearances from Romulans and Ferengi, the first two years at least tried to do their own thing. The Kazon might have been a questionable idea horribly executed, but at least they were a new species. The Vidiians were underutilised and remain one of the most fascinating recurring aliens in the entire franchise.

The brains of the operation.

The brains of the operation.

The third season only features a few token appearances of the recurring Delta Quadrant species. The Kazon disappear from the show after Basics, Part II. The Vidiians appear within a nightmarish time loop in Coda. A lost Talaxian pops up on a space station in Fair Trade. However, these aliens are no longer a recurring presence. There is an obvious vacancy that needs to be filled. Voyager needs a new recurring alien species. With that in mind, it is telling that the third season does not create a new alien menace like the Hirogen or the Malon.

The third season of Voyager decides that the Borg are to be the shows recurring adversaries. It makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the Borg are arguably the most iconic and effective aliens created by The Next Generation. They were a massive part of the spin-off really coming into its own with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. They were also a major part of the hugely successful feature film Star Trek: First Contact. There was definitely an appetite for more Borg stories. There always would be.

Corpsing...

Corpsing…

At the same time, the presence of the Borg feels very much like a concession or a surrender. This is Voyager effectively surrendering itself to becoming a pale imitation of The Next Generation, acknowledging that it will never create any alien species as memorable or as iconic as the Borg. That is not an unreasonable thing to accept. After all, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did fantastic work with the Dominion, but that collection of alien species could never hope to have the same cultural penetration as the Borg.

Still, it is disheartening to see Voyager give up on itself so completely. Indeed, Unity is not even a particularly innovative Borg story, feeling very much like a retread of their last television story in Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. This is a recurring problem for the third season of Voyager, which has spent a lot of time emulating various Next Generation episodes. However, there is also a sense that Voyager is not terrible at this imitation, even as it is lessened by it. Unity is a flawed episode, but an intriguing one.

Just what every Borg story needs! A Chakotay romance!

Just what every Borg story needs! A Chakotay romance!

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Star Trek: Voyager – Blood Fever (Review)

Blood Fever is a strange and dysfunctional episode.

By this point in the third season, Star Trek: Voyager has abandoned any sincere attempt to develop or define its own identity. Instead, the series has committed itself to being the most generic Star Trek show imaginable. In many ways, this represents a disappointing betrayal of an interest premise and a fascinating cast of characters. In other ways, this allows the show to focus on telling archetypal Star Trek stories like Remember or Distant Origins or Living Witness, stories that deal with broad themes through science-fiction allegory.

Tunnels of love.

Tunnels of love.

In its strongest moments, Blood Fever feels like it wants to be that kind of classic Star Trek metaphorical exploration of contemporary society. In many ways, Blood Fever is an exploration of contemporary attitudes towards sex and sexuality, of the damage that can be wrought by sexual repression on levels both personal and societal. It is building upon the idea of pon’farr as introduced by Theodore Sturgeon (and refined by D.C. Fontana) in Amok Time, as the volcanic eruption of sexual desire following years of repression.

Unfortunately, Blood Fever lacks the courage of its convictions. The script feels like a victim of the same social mores that it seeks to critique, either unable or unwilling to talk about sex and sexuality in a manner that is suitably candid. As a result, Blood Fever ends up a muddled and ineffective piece of television that seems unwilling to call out its characters and which inevitably builds towards a tired rehash of an iconic Star Trek scene. Waiting seven seasons for this must be very unsatisfying.

Droning on.

Droning on.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact caps off the thirtieth anniversary celebrations with one eye to the past and one eye to the future.

The second film to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation is surprisingly nostalgic in places. The script makes several rather blatant nods towards Star Trek II: The Wrath of the Khan, perhaps the consensus pick for the best Star Trek feature film. It marks the return of a memorable antagonist from the parent series, serving as a direct sequel to a particular episode and pitting the lead character in a battle of wills against an old opponent. More than that, it builds upon a rich tradition of the franchise riffing upon Moby Dick.

"This scene is going to seem really ironic when they launch Star Trek: Enterprise."

“This scene is going to seem really ironic when they launch Star Trek: Enterprise.”

However, there are other major influences. Most notably, the film leans quite heavily upon Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In both films, the Enterprise crew film themselves sent back in time to save Earth from an alien threat, resulting in comedic misadventures as the characters interact with a supporting cast native to this time period. Most analysis of First Contact tends to focus on The Wrath of Khan parallels, as they dominate the primarily plot. Nevertheless, the secondary plot draws heavily from The Voyage Home.

More than that, the feature film draws heavily upon the existing Star Trek mythos. The movie is a direct sequel to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, recognising that two-parter as the moment that The Next Generation truly came into its own and stepped out from under the shadow of the original Star Trek series. Even beyond that acknowledgement of franchise history, First Contact does not take the crew back in time to the present day or a historical event. It takes the crew back to the point at which the future of Star Trek truly begins.

"Mister Worf, I'll be damned if I'm going to let Star Trek: Deep Space Nine out-badass me."

“Mister Worf, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Star Trek: Deep Space Nine out-badass me.”

Still, while the movie is constructed as a definite celebration of the past, it also serves to define the future of the franchise. The template for the remaining Rick Berman years can be found in this feature film. The success of the action and adventure beats in this instalment undoubtedly informed the emphasis on such elements in Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. The final two films in this particular iteration of the franchise owe a lot more to this particular film than to Star Trek: Generations.

Even more, the impact of the film reached well beyond this set of characters. The other three television series were all heavily shaped and defined by this particular feature film. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine inherited a lot of the look and feel of this film, with the crew swapping out into these grey uniforms with Rapture. The Dominion War would use a lot of the ships designed for the combat sequence towards the opening of the scene. Some of the other production design also bled in, including the space suits in Empok Nor.

No time like the past.

No time like the past.

Star Trek: Voyager would inherit some of that production design as well, including the space suits in episodes like Day of Honour or Demon. However, the film’s biggest impact on that particular series was the renovation of the Borg. Brannon Braga would seize upon the idea of the Borg as a recurring threat, setting them up in episodes like Blood Fever and Unity mere months after the release of the film. The Borg would serve as the basis of the big third and fourth season two-parter, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. Alice Krige would appear in Endgame.

In its own way, this film also signals the end of the Berman era. The arrival of the Vulcan ship in the closing minutes serves to set up the premise of Star Trek: Enterprise. James Cromwell would make the torch-passing cameo in Broken Bow, reprising his role as Zefram Cochrane. The idea of doing a prequel television series that charted the origin of the franchise feels very much rooted in the (critical and commercial) success of this iteration of the film franchise.

"Captain, when the Borg promised you a pound of flesh, it turns out that they meant it literally."

“Captain, when the Borg promised you a pound of flesh, it turns out that they meant it literally.”

On the audio commentary, writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore speak of the thirtieth anniversary as “the peak” of the franchise. After all, it seemed like the celebrations would last forever. First Contact was just one small part of a whole season of television that marked the best that the franchise had to offer. There was a wide selection of material, including episodes like Trials and Tribble-ationsFlashbackFuture’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. Following all of those, First Contact was really just the cherry on top of a very delicious cake.

However, the issue with First Contact as “the peak” is quite simple. From this vantage point, the audience can survey the entire Berman era. First Contact is positioned so that the audience can see the metaphorical beginnings of the Star Trek franchise, but also the makings of the end of this particular iteration. From the peak, there is only one direction.

"Just checked Rotten Tomatoes there. Still the best in the series. Don't make me put on Nemesis, Mister Worf."

“Just checked Rotten Tomatoes there. Still the best in the series. Don’t make me put on Nemesis, Mister Worf.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Regeneration (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.

It seems like a bit of an understatement to describe Regeneration as highly controversial.

The blu ray release of the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise includes two commentaries for the episode, a sure sign that there is a lot to talk about. On a track recorded in 2005, writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong describe the episode as “infamous.” On a track recorded in 2013, John Billingsley describes how certain segments of fandom considered it a “jumping the shark” moment for the show. That last statement illustrates one of the perverse qualities of Star Trek fandom; one would assume that the viewers turned off by Regeneration would have already tuned out with Acquisition.

We are Borg.

We are Borg.

After all, the decision to bring back the Ferengi in Acquisition is hard to explain. Nobody was clamouring for more Ferengi episodes after Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had gone off the air. Outside of Deep Space Nine, the most enduring impression of the Ferengi was that they had begun their life as “villains that didn’t quite work” and bad quickly been transformed into “comic relief that didn’t quite work.” As such, it is hard to account for the decision to bend continuity in order to introduce the Ferengi into the first season of a prequel show designed to escape the baggage of the larger Star Trek franchise.

On the other hand, it made a great deal of sense to bring back the Borg. After all, the Borg were one of the few Star Trek aliens created after 1969 to make a genuine impression on popular culture. The Borg will never be as iconic as Klingons or Vulcans, but they will always be more iconic than Cardassians or Bajorans. They were also stars of the best-loved Star Trek movie starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg are a big deal; there is a reason that Star Trek: Voyager ran them into the ground.

"Assimilate this!"

“Assimilate this!”

It is no wonder that the Borg are frequently cited in discussions around the future of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. Asked if the creative team would consider bringing the Borg to the rebooted twenty-third century, Roberto Orci answered, “I think we would think about it.” Damon Lindelof was even blunter in his assessment, “You can’t talk about Trek and not talk about the Borg.” While they have undoubtedly been over-exposed and over-used since they first appeared in Q Who?, the Borg are the most distinctive and most successful addition to the Star Trek mythos outside the classic show.

While common sense and experience seemed to weigh against bringing back the Ferengi in Acquisition, it seems that continuity is the only thing holding the Borg back from making an appearance on Enterprise. That said, Sussman and Strong find a clever way around that issue, by remembering the suggestion in Broken Bow that Enterprise is as much a sequel to Star Trek: First Contact as a prequel to the rest of the Star Trek universe.

"Oh no, Cap'n, they've discovered the mood lightin' settin'."

“Oh no, Cap’n, they’ve discovered the mood lightin’ settin’.”

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