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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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The X-Files – Bad Blood (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Despite a notable absence of Darin Morgan, Bad Blood makes a much more convincing case for Vince Gilligan as the heir apparent to Darin Morgan than Small Potatoes did at the end of the fourth season.

Bad Blood finds Gilligan touching on some of the same broad ideas as Small Potatoes – how Mulder is perceived and how he perceives himself, a sly awareness of the show’s tropes and conventions. However, Bad Blood feels a lot more honed and focused than Small Potatoes. It felt like Small Potatoes only got to the meat of the story it wanted to tell in its final third, while Bad Blood is shrewd enough to put its core concepts front-and-centre. While Bad Blood has the same broad humour of Small Potatoes, it feels a lot more convincing when it comes to characters.

The tooth is out there...

The tooth is out there…

It could be argued that Gilligan drew quite heavily on the work of Darin Morgan in some of his scripts. There is no shame in this. After all, Darin Morgan is perhaps the most widely-praised writer to work on The X-Files. In this context, Bad Blood is something of a spiritual successor to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Gilligan’s script is not quite as structurally or philosophically ambitious as Darin Morgan’s final credited script for the series, but it does hit on the same fundamental idea that truth is an inherently subjective construct.

Bad Blood is essentially an episode that is not only about how Mulder and Scully see each other, but how they see themselves.

Mulder knows what's at stake...

Mulder knows what’s at stake…

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Allegiance (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Allegiance is a solid episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It just has the misfortune to follow three of the strongest episodes the show ever produced, and to come directly in front of one of the franchise’s better-received “light” episodes. It would be a tough situation for just about any episode, and the biggest problem with Allegiance is that it’s very much “traditional” Star Trek. It’s very safe, it’s very standard, it’s very familiar.

Allegiance is really a bunch of Star Trek clichés put in a blender. A doppelganger arrives on the ship to allow an actor a chance to flex their muscles; powerful aliens are keen to learn a lot about humanity; radically different people work together in order to overcome an obstacle; there’s even a lovely coda on just how well-oiled the Enterprise crew have become. It’s all executed quite well. Allegiance is a charming piece of work, one that feels intentionally light and breezy. It’s just naturally a bit of a step down from the phenomenal run of episodes that came before it.

Yep, it's a bit of a light week for the Enterprise crew...

Yep, it’s a bit of a light week for the Enterprise crew…

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Ensigns of Command (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Ensigns of Command is a Data-centric script from Melinda Snodgrass, the writer responsible for The Measure of a Man. It was the first episode produced in the show’s third season, even if it was the second to air. As with so many third season episodes, The Ensigns of Command was beset by behind-the-scenes difficulties. These issues plagued the episode through all stages of production – from the script through to post-production.

It is a wonder that The Ensigns of Command turned out watchable. While it certainly can’t measure up to Snodgrass’ earlier Data-centric story, it is an intriguing character study that benefits from a focus on character and an understanding of Star Trek: The Next Generation works. While far from an exceptional or defining episode of The Next Generation, it’s a demonstration of how far the show has come that even an episode as troubled as this could look so professional and feel so satisfying.

A fun shoot...

A fun shoot…

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Evolution (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Evolution kicks off the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and marks the point at which the spin-0ff really comes into its own. It’s remarkable how consistent in quality the third season is, despite the trouble brewing behind the scenes. It’s also remarkable how quickly the show finds its footing after two years of stumbling clumsily in the right direction. Within the first five episodes of the third season, The Next Generation has clearly found its voice.

However, a change is obvious even from Evolution. Michael Piller would take over the reigns four episodes into the season, but he also co-wrote the script to the season premiere. While Piller polished quite a few of the scripts passing through The Next Generation‘s third season, it is interesting that his credited work book-ends the season, setting the tone and leaving a clear impression.

While Evolution is not the strongest episode of the season to come, it does have a much stronger sense of self and purpose than anything that has really come before. It isn’t a bold or ground-breaking script by any measure; it’s actually a relatively simple story. It just tells that story with a wonderful resonance, clarity and efficiency, commodities that have been sorely lacking from The Next Generation to date.

Hold on, it's time for a change...

Hold on, it’s time for a change…

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