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Star Trek: Voyager – Repentance (Review)

Repentance marks another example of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager groping clumsily and awkwardly towards an archetypal Star Trek plot.

The Star Trek franchise has cultivated a reputation for being a vehicle for progressive social commentary, largely on the back of episodes like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Plato’s Stepchildren. Of course, those episodes were decidedly less progressive and more complicated than the popular memory would allow, but there is an argument to be made that the idea of Star Trek as a voice for social progress is worth something even if the franchise did not always live up to those ideals. After all, the franchise also gave audiences The Omega Glory and Turnabout Intruder.

In the neck of time.

The seventh season of Voyager seems to recognise this social commentary as something essential to Star Trek‘s cultural identity, something that essentially defines Star Trek as Star Trek and distinguishes it from other popular science-fiction. This explains why the seventh season of Voyager is so preoccupied with the Prime Directive, which even gets name-dropped within Repentance; it is a major element in stories like Flesh and Blood, Part I, Flesh and Blood, Part II, Natural Law and Friendship One. It is seen as something identifiably Star-Trek-ian in nature.

The seventh season of Voyager builds a number of episodes around big social issues of the late nineties and the new millennium; Critical Care grappled with the healthcare crisis, while Lineage wrestled with anxieties about designer babies. Repentance is very much of a piece with those episodes, although it turns its gaze towards the issue of capital punishment. On paper, this is archetypal Star Trek storytelling, an allegorical exploration of a hot button issue through the prism of science-fiction. However, as with so many of these episodes, the archetypal Star Trek trappings feel superficial.

Hologram for a king’s ransom.

Repentance has very little to actually say about the death penalty. More than that, what it does have to say is deeply confused and unfocused. Voyager is perhaps the most consistently conservative of Star Trek shows in terms of political philosophy, which has led to a number of spectacularly poor decisions like the characterisation of the Kazon from Caretaker onwards or the false rape accusation paranoia underpinning Retrospect. It seems entirely predictable, if no less disappointing, that Voyager stumbles clumsily into an ill-judged take on the application of capital punishment in Repentance.

As with Critical Care and Lineage before it, Repentance is an episode that understands the importance of using a platform to say something important about one of the most pressing issues of the era while also extending a great deal of effort trying to avoid saying anything at all.

“Cue the women in prison fan-fic.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Meld (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Meld is a masterpiece. It is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager to date. There is perhaps a reasonable argument to be made that it is one of the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is, in many respects, one of the strongest and most compelling exploration of themes that have been bubbling around in the background since Caretaker, offering a more thoughtful and insightful exploration of the nineties culture of fear and anxiety than anything involving the Kazon. It is certainly the best use of Tuvok that the show managed in its seven year run.

Meld is an episode about violence, in its many forms. It is a story about the horrors and arbitrariness of unprovoked violence, but also about the cycles of violence that such actions can create. In many respects, Meld is a more scathing criticism of the death penalty than Repentance, the seventh season episode explicitly written as a death penalty allegory. Unlike many of the surrounding episodes, Meld actually manages to make good use of the show’s Delta Quadrant setting to heighten the dramatic stakes.

"Where's your head at?"

“Where’s your head at?”

In a way, Meld represents a collision of the franchise’s past and future. Meld may be the last truly great Star Trek script written by Michael Piller, the writer who helped to define the modern iteration of the franchise with his work on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, it is also Mike Sussman’s first story credit on the franchise; Sussman would go on to join the show’s writing staff in its final season and would be one of the few writers to serve a full four seasons on Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the script for Meld is exceptionally well-written, the episode is elevated by a combination of factors. Cliff Bole does great work in bringing a very unconventional Star Trek episode to life. Meld could be seen as a continuation of the second season’s b-movie charms. Following on from the robot wars of Prototype and the body horror of Threshold, Meld plays like a Star Trek serial killer thriller. Bole’s directorial choices are consciously stylised, with delightful little touches like the band of light across Tuvok’s eyes when the body is discovered.

"Funny. I though Braga murdered Darwin last week."

“Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week.”

The episode also benefits from two mesmerising central performances from guest star Brad Dourif and Tim Russ. Russ was always one of the more under-utilised members of the Voyager ensemble, particularly when his “obligatory emotionally detached character” role was usurped by Seven of Nine in the fourth season. It is a shame, as Russ has a great deal of fun channeling Nimoy in his portrayal of the franchise’s first full-blooded Vulcan regular. Tuvok (and Russ) deserved more attention than the show afforded him.

That said, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show here. Lon Suder is one of the most fascinating guest characters in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and perhaps the only recurring character member of the Voyager crew who made any impression. A lot of that is down to the novelty of a fundamentally violent character in a Starfleet uniform, but Dourif is absolutely brilliant in the part. Dourif might just be the best guest star ever to appear in Voyager, and one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Beta(zoid) male.

Beta(zoid) male.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of Meld is the way that it feels very much of its time; it is an episode that firmly engages with a cultural context around Voyager. So much of Voyager seems lost in some sort of weird science-fiction neverland where the fifties and sixties never ended that a well-produced episode that feels of its time is a rarity. Meld is an episode that would feel strange ten years earlier or ten years later, but one which aligns perfectly with the wider context of 1996.

It is a overdue triumph from the Voyager team.

Smile!

Smile!

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Torchwood: Miracle Day – The New World (Review)

In a way, Torchwood: Miracle Day is a miracle itself. It’s a sign of just how far Russell T. Davies has brought Doctor Who, to the point where one of the franchise’s spin-offs could be an international co-production between America and the United Kingdom. Sure, Starz is hardly the best and brightest of American networks, but it’s no small accomplishment on the part of Davies.

America has been something of a promised land for the franchise since the eighties, when John Nathan Turner would spend considerable time and money visiting American fan conventions or casting multinational companions or even arranging international co-financing or to air The Five Doctors first in international territories. None of those examples really took, and most of America only really knew the franchise through PBS airings of the Tom Baker era.

Jack's back...

Jack’s back…

Davies did a lot of work to bring Doctor Who to America. That work really came to fruition during the Steven Moffat era, with a massive opening two-parter set in 1970’s America and the use of Utah as a crucial location. Massive visits to Comic Con became an annual ritual for the show, its producers and performers. The Day of the Doctor will be broadcast live around the world at the same time, no small accomplishment.

While it’s undoubtedly on a much smaller scale, it is nice that Miracle Day affords Davies a chance to be part of this expansion – spearheading his own project that directly intersects with American television. Starz is hardly Fox, the network that Davies originally pitched to, but it is a significant achievement, and a lot of Miracle Day is best understood as an opportunity for the franchise “to go American.”

Defying classification...

Defying classification…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Stardust (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Stardust was the second episode of Space: Above and Beyond to air on a Friday, as had originally been planned.

Of course, it was too late to help the show. By this point in its run, Space: Above and Beyond was a dead show walking. Stardust seems to wryly acknowledge as much. It opens with an inmate on death row, watching the clock tick down to midnight. The show is essentially about sacrifices made by the already-dead, and it’s hard not to get a sense that it captured the mood of the staff on the show as well. A wry wink at the audience, like all the introspective reflection in the earlier episodes.

Cold wars...

Cold wars…

It is also interesting how Stardust positions itself as a possible companion piece to The X-Files. The X-Files casts a pretty significant shadow over Space: Above and Beyond. It was very much an attempt by Fox to capitalise on the success of The X-Files as a genre show. It drafted in two of the most reliable executive producers working on The X-Files. The first two episodes were directed by a veteran of The X-Files. David Duchovny had popped by R & R as something of a goodwill ambassador.

Space: Above and Beyond had played with these comparisons before. The Farthest Man From Home had teased a conspiracy narrative about alien and government cover-ups. Level of Necessity featured a riff on Mulder, with a tall dark-haired paranormal investigator wandering into the show. Stardust makes the connection more explicit, riffing on some of the themes that The X-Files had pushed to the fore at the end of its second season and into the third, exploring links between Native Americans and extraterrestrials.

The honoured dead...

The honoured dead…

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The X-Files – The List (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The List taps into a lot of contemporary anxieties.

As with Chris Carter’s last stand-alone script for The X-Files, there is something very timely about The List. The late second season medical conspiracy thriller F. Emasculata had aired at a point where national anxieties about Ebola and other killer diseases were at a high, with the high-profile release of Outbreak and the publication of Crisis in the Hot Zone. One of Carter’s strengths as a producer and a writer was his ability to take the national pulse, and to make The X-Files reflect whatever made nineties America uncomfortable.

A capital idea...

A capital idea…

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Non-Review Review: Into The Abyss

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Capital punishment is always a thorny issue to tackle, if only because of the delicate relationship between the victim and perpetrator of the original crime. It’s easy to seem sly or manipulative while painting the convicted murder as some victim of society or social injustice, while ignoring the impact of their actions on the family and friends of those they killed. Werner Herzog is always a deeply fascinating director, whether of narrative films or documentaries.

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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – Secret Origin, The Rage of the Red Lanterns, Agent Orange & Emerald Eclipse

It’s no secret that I’ve been greatly enjoying Geoff Johns’ run on the Green Lantern title (along with seemingly everybody else). After successfully resurrecting a fallen hero, reestablishing the various traits of the Green Lantern mythos and giving us a blockbuster summer event, Johns proceeds to make the final moves on the chessboard towards what is likely to be the climax of his saga. But whereas his initial set-up might have suffered slightly from the fact that it was mainly a case of getting a disruly house in order, here Johns has enough elements flowing from his previous collections to make these chapters in the story seem interesting in their own right.

It's like a rainbow of interstellar warriors...

It's like a rainbow of interstellar warriors...

Note: I am aware that Emerald Eclipse is the work of Peter Tomasi – who also worked on some of the alternating chapters of Sinestro Corps War. I would review his work on Green Lantern Corps separately, but it seems that this is the first collection of his work put out in hardcover (for shame). So I’ve bundled my thoughts on Emerald Eclipse in here. Going forward, if DC put out Green Lantern Corps in hardcover trades, I should be able to look at them separately.

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