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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 The only issue was that the template felt increasingly outdated.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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The Defenders – Royal Dragon (Review)

Royal Dragon might just be the best episode of The Defenders. It is also the smallest.

Royal Dragon is in many ways the runt of the litter. It is an episode relatively low on action beats, particularly given that it is sandwiched between the closing scenes of Worst Behaviour and the opening scenes of Take Shelter. It also has a relatively small primary cast. There is no sign of supporting players like Colleen Wing, Misty Knight, Trish Walker, or Claire Temple. The episode also confines most of the four heroes to one location for the bulk of the runtime, even if Jessica Jones gets to take a breather. It could easily be the “bottle” episode.

Hero shot.

Royal Dragon is also an episode that accomplishes relatively little in terms of plot momentum or forward movement. There are no major revelations in the episode, with a lot of the exposition covering information that the audience already knows from the other four shows. In some ways, Royal Dragon feels like a void at the centre of the season. It does not tangibly push the season forward. In many ways, the cliffhanger is arguably just a retread of the ending to Worst Behaviour; these four heroes, standing together against impossible odds.

At the same time, Royal Dragon luxuriates in this space and this emptiness. It is an episode that essentially locks its four leads together in a confined space for most of the runtime, which affords the writing staff the opportunity to have the characters slow down and process what has happened to them, to bounce off one another. Royal Dragon allows for the first extended interactions between various combinations of these four players.

A taste of teamwork.

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The Sound of Not-Quite Silence: The Era of Dialogue-Lite Blockbusters

There are several remarkable things about the blockbuster slate for 2017. The most obvious is that the blockbuster slate for 2017 is remarkably strong.

It is definitely the strongest slate of summer releases since at least 2012, if not 2008. Sure, there have been misfires like CHiPs or Baywatch or Transformers: The Last Knight, but there has also been a lot of great stuff. Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, The Big Sick. Going back to earlier in the year, there is a fine selection of genre material. Get Out, Logan, John Wick: Chapter II. Even the second-tier blockbusters like Kong: Skull Island, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are relatively solid.

However, there is also an interesting trend in how these stories are being told. In particular, the summer blockbusters of 2017 are quite interesting on a formal level. In particular, these blockbusters are very invested in non-verbal storytelling. While the superhero movies of the summer – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming – still conform to a familiar structure of dialogue-driven exposition, a lot of the other films tend to be quite light on conventional dialogue, relying on other ways of communicating character, story and theme.

This is most obvious with War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk, impressive blockbusters that feature a number of extended dialogue-light scenes. When the characters do communicate, it is often in unconventional ways; the technical dialogue plays beneath the soundtrack in Dunkirk, while the apes communicate through sign language in War for the Planet of the Apes. In some ways, Baby Driver is also part of this trend. It is a movie that features dialogue, but is largely driven by its soundtrack. It characters often seem to speak in pulp clichés, with movie’s individuality shining on Baby’s iPod.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Ascent (Review)

Discussions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tend to focus on the big sweeping events and the epic scope.

It is easy to see why this is the case. Over the course of the show, alliances break and empires fall. Characters are elevated from the lowest rungs of the social ladder to command over entire planets. Whereas Star Trek: The Next Generation worked hard to flesh out alien cultures like the Romulans and the Klingons, it never committed to the kinds of sweeping long-form narratives that unfolded across the run of its younger sibling. The fall (and rise and fall again) of Cardassia, the broken and mended peace with the Klingons, the Dominion War.

"And to round out the thirtieth anniversary, we're going to climb the Paramount logo."

“And to round out the thirtieth anniversary, we’re going to climb the Paramount logo.”

Deep Space Nine deserves (and receives) a great deal of credit for telling these stories. Indeed, the franchise would not make another attempt at storytelling on this scale until the final two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. However, focusing on the bigger picture tends to gloss over the other strengths of Deep Space Nine. As much as the show crafts epic long-running stories of betrayal and redemption that span seasons of broadcast television, it interspaces these epic beats with lots of smaller character moments.

The Ascent is a wonderful example of this. The fifth season of Deep Space Nine is one of the most sweeping and epic seasons in the history of the franchise, but it still finds time for the smaller beats. The Ascent is essentially a set of low key character studies, playing to the strengths of both the cast and the characters.

An uphill struggle.

An uphill struggle.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Investigations (Review)

This February and March, 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.

Investigations is a misfire. It is a spectacular misfire.

Investigations is the episode that pretty much single-handedly killed any chance of Star Trek: Voyager embracing long-form storytelling once and for all. The first season had enthusiastically embraced an episodic structure, but the second season had played with the idea of playing out an arc across the majority of the season. Tying together the Kazon with the idea of a traitor on Voyager and the redemption of Tom Paris, the production team decided to attempt something relatively novel for Star Trek.

Kill me. Kill me now.

Kill me.
Kill me now.

It is worth stressing just how experimental this kind of story was. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had played with the idea of serialisation. Threads like the Romulan and Cardassian invasion of the Gamma Quadrant were carefully seeded through episodes like Defiant and Visionary, but there was not the same tension and momentum afforded to the arcs of Michael Jonas and Tom Paris in the second season. The Romulans and the Cardassians were not discussed in every episode leading up to Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast.

At the same time, Deep Space Nine eased into serialisation in a way that allowed for failures and miscalculations that did not publicly humiliate the show. Bajoran politics could be quietly eased into the background when they weren’t quite working, characters like Primmin and T’Rul could be dropped when they weren’t what the show needed. The second season of Voyager was perhaps a bit too bold in its attempts at long-form storytelling, creating a situation where there was no way to pull back from an arc that wasn’t working.

"Well. That escalated quickly."

“Well. That escalated quickly.”

It became quite clear early on that the Paris and Jonas arc was not working. Episodes like Threshold and Dreadnought ground to a halt so that the audience could get yet another scene of Jonas selling out Voyager to the Kazon; treachery that never seemed to actually go anywhere. At the same time, Paris’ rebellious behaviour was tackled in a superficial manner in episodes like Meld and Lifesigns, with no real exploration of the interesting side of such a sting operation.

Investigations serves to bring the arc to a close, but in a manner that feels perfunctory rather than compelling. It is resolved out of a sense of tired desperation rather than any real inspiration. There is a feeling that the production team have determined this to be a failed experiment, of which they will never speak again.

See? I told you EVERYBODY's thought about it.

See? I told you EVERYBODY’s thought about it.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Starship Down (Review)

This February and March, 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 Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

It is surprising that the Star Trek franchise has not done more “disaster” episodes, given the science-fiction setting and the occasional budget overruns that make a simple and effective bottle show all the more effective.

Starship Down is not the first time that the franchise has attempted to emulate the classic disaster film formula. Star Trek: The Next Generation had produced an episode (called Disaster, appropriately enough), which used many of the classic disaster movie tropes to explore various cast dynamics. Starship Down is arguably structured more like a submarine thriller than a disaster film, but the point of comparison still stands. There are conflicts over command styles, characters caught in lifts, high stakes and higher tension.

"Hanok, would you care to assist me in performing surgery on a photon torpedo?"

“Hanok, would you care to assist me in performing surgery on a photon torpedo?”

It is interesting to compare Starship Down to Disaster, if only as a point of comparison between the two shows in question. In many ways, the contrast serves to highlight the difference between the respective shows and their ensembles. In Disaster, the show was careful to give every combination of the cast something to accomplish. Picard and kids escape the turbolift; Geordi and Beverly vent the containers; Riker and Data’s head have excellent adventures; Worf delivers Molly.

In contrast, the character combinations in Starship Down are less goal-orientated. Worf and O’Brien defeat the Jem’Hadar while Quark and Hanok disarm a torpedo. However, Kira simply tries to keep Sisko awake while reflecting on their relationship and Bashir and Dax huddle together in a turbolift waiting for their oxygen to run out. There is a sense that Starship Down is much more interested in its character dynamics than it is a sense of narrative momentum or objective-orientated storytelling.

"Thank goodness only the LED's were affected."

“Thank goodness only the LED’s were affected.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Forgotten (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.

The Forgotten opens with a funeral service.

It is nominally a service for the eighteen people who died in the Xindi attack. (The total was given as seventeen in Damage, but it is possible that Archer is counting the death of Fuller from Anomaly or that another crew member died in the interim from their wounds.) It is a nice illustration of just how strongly the final stretch of the third season embraces serialisation, with the episode’s teaser serving as a coda to the events of the previous two episodes. It is a nice, small touch that sets the mood for the episode ahead.

Funeral for a friend...

Funeral for a friend…

However, it also seems like a very self-aware sequence. Archer is nominally talking about the death of eighteen characters, but he might as well be talking about the looming death of this iteration of the Star Trek franchise, or of the death of innocence that featured in Damage. “We’re in bad shape, I can’t deny that,” Archer tells his crew. He could just as easily be talking about the show, which seemed practically under siege at this point. “But we’re still in one piece. Enterprise is a tough ship. She took more than anyone could ask her to and then some.”

In many ways, the beating that the Enterprise took in Azati Prime reflects the beating that Star Trek: Enterprise had taken over its three year run: from a fandom hostile to the idea of a prequel and unsatisfied with an overly familiar storytelling structure; from a network that had changed hands during the first season of the show; from an eager Hollywood press that could smell blood in the water that had been ripely aged eighteen years; even from former allies like Majel Barrett, William Shatner and Ronald D. Moore.

Tripping over his emotional state...

Tripping over his emotional state…

The Forgotten is a story that is very consciously symbolic and metaphorical. It is also something of an oddity. In a way, it feels like a more successful version of what the show attempted with Harbinger, offering a light character-driven story falling between two bigger beats in the larger plot arc. With its fixation on sex and violence, Harbinger was goofy and pulpy in equal measure. In contrast, The Forgotten is an episode that is morose and sombre. It is an episode that very clearly articulates where the third season is going – and where it always has been going.

If Damage was a show about how Star Trek could easily get lost in a grim and gritty War on Terror metaphor, The Forgotten reveals that the third season was never about rationalisation or justification. The Forgotten is a show about how the Star Trek franchise needed to find a way back to its more traditional values.

A massive breach...

A massive breach…

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