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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Call to Arms (Review)

The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one. One could say that it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively. As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. This does not mean that one can know when war will come but only that one is sure that it will come. This was true even before the atomic bomb was made. What has changed is the destructiveness of war.

– Albert Einstein, “Einstein on the Atomic Bomb”, The Atlantic, November 1945

Feels like coming home...

Feels like coming home…

Can war ever be justified? Can war ever be inevitable? Can war ever be necessary?

These are very tough ethical questions, particularly when posed in the abstract. In fact, the vast majority of policy decisions about warfare are rooted in living memory rather than philosophical certainty. It has been repeatedly suggested that Bill Clinton’s reluctance to intervene in Rwanda was a consequence of the spectacular failure in Somalia, and that his eventual intervention in Kosovo was an act of atonement for the moral lapse in Rwanda. This is to say nothing of how Obama’s policy on Syria is shaped by Bush’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Station keeping.

Station keeping.

The Star Trek universe is a utopia. It is a world where technology has eliminated poverty and hunger. The replicator, the holodeck, the transporter and warp drive are the building blocks of an idealistic future in which mankind seems to have found peace with itself. Dating back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the latest, Gene Roddenberry proposed that the franchise represented an idealised future for mankind. It was a world in which nobody ever wanted for anything, in which mankind were free to explore the universe.

This idealism is a cornerstone of the franchise. It is one of the most recognisable and universal aspects of Star Trek. This is a franchise that genuinely believes that mankind can be better than we are today. That is a large part of what makes the show so powerful, particularly in its original context. As the Doomsday Clock ticks closer and closer to midnight, Star Trek is a franchise that seems to argue that mankind has a future worth aspiring toward; a future beyond the end of the world or some corporate dystopia.

A farewell at arms.

A farewell at arms.

The franchise was never particularly interested in exploring how mankind reached that level of enlightenment. Star Trek: Enterprise was nominally a prequel series for the franchise, picking up in the wake of Star Trek: First Contact, but it opened after mankind had eliminated warfare and famine and nationalism. In some ways, the franchise could seem like a rather surreal experiment. If you imagined a world without warfare or without greed or without hunger, maybe people would get along? There is undoubtedly value on this, but it feels simplistic.

In contrast, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dared to ask tough and uncomfortable question by challenging these assumptions. If these characters did not live in a perfect world, would they still aspire to betterment? If hunger and greed were still a part of everyday life, could mankind still work to improve themselves? If warfare is the inevitable outcome of statesmanship, then how do these twenty-fourth century people retain their values and ideals? These are legitimately tough questions for the franchise to ponder, but Deep Space Nine embraces them.

Terror on Terok Nor.

Terror on Terok Nor.

It is hard to overstate just how shocking Call to Arms was on broadcast. The actual plot mechanics are fairly standard Star Trek season finale stuff. The ominous and mounting sense of dread coursing through the episode evokes The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, the first season-ending cliffhanger from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The decision to have the recurring antagonists hijack the eponymous space station recalls Basics, Part I, the cliffhanger that Star Trek: Voyager broadcast at the end of the previous television season.

However, Call to Arms is more shocking for the one element of the episode that has been building since the first encounter with the Dominion in The Jem’Hadar. It is the beginning of the franchise’s first extended war story. This is bold new territory for the franchise, something that remains controversial to this day.

"The ball is in your court."

“The ball is in your court.”

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The X-Files – Requiem (Review)

This September, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

As with a lot of the seventh season, Requiem is an oddity.

It is an episode that exists in a weird limbo state, carefully designed and calibrated so that it might serve two – if not three – very different purposes. Requiem was written and filmed at a point where nobody knew what was going to happen next. Requiem could have been either a season or a series finalé; it could have been the last episode of the seventh season, the last episode of the series before the launch of a movie franchise, or even just the last episode ever. That is a lot of weight to put on a single episode.

"X" marks the spot where it all began...

“X” marks the spot where it all began…

In essence, Requiem existed in a state of ambiguity and flux. It was never entirely sure what Requiem would be when Chris Carter wrote it or when Kim Manners directed it. Requiem had to be designed to be fluid and malleable; it had to support any context that might be heaped upon it in the editing suite or on broadcast. Stories like Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and Bad Blood had explored the blurred boundaries of reality and perception; Requiem is perhaps that idea applied to the show itself.

Chris Carter could tell you what happened in Requiem as it went through production. He could explain plot details and character motivation; he could outline the chain of events that bind Requiem together. However, it was impossible for anybody working on Requiem to actually assert what the episode was until three days before the episode aired. Until that point, Requiem was a shadow or a blur, just waiting for some larger context to bring it into proper focus.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Zero Hour (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.

There was a very real chance that Zero Hour might have been the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise to air.

In fact, it was entirely possible that Zero Hour‘s distinctive (and downright provocative) closing shot of an evil!alien!space!Nazi might have been the last shot of Star Trek to air on television for quite some time.

Time is running out...

Time is running out…

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The X-Files – Biogenesis (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

‘When Alexan­der saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to con­quer.’ Ben­e­fits of a clas­si­cal education.

– Hans Gruber, Die Hard

In hindsight, “ending” the mythology with a two-parter in the middle of the season was always a risky proposition.

Airing Two Fathers and One Son during February Sweeps was a logical decision. Ending the mythology that had been running through the show for five-and-a-half seasons was certain to grab the attention of casual viewers, reeling them in to boast up ratings. The X-Files had always aired mythology two-parters during Sweeps, putting them forward as examples of the best that the series could do and cementing the show’s claim to be “blockbuster television.” Choosing to wrap up the mythology during February Sweeps was just an extension of that approach.

Look what just washed up...

Look what just washed up…

And it worked. Two Fathers earned the second highest Nielsen score of the sixth season, landing just behind The Rain King. Two Fathers was the last time that The X-Files would rate so highly. As such, the decision to “close off” the mythology in the middle of the season was a very shrewd decision. However, it did raise questions about what the show would do at the very end of season. After all, The X-Files liked to bookend its seasons with mythology episodes, counting on a mythology cliffhanger to carry viewers across the long gap between seasons.

How do you tell a mythology story when you’ve just worked so hard to tidy it all away?

Behind the curtain...

Behind the curtain…

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Millennium – The Innocents (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

So, how do you write your way out of the end of the world?

To be fair, it is not an easy assignment. The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now are two spectacular pieces of television, but they arguably work better as a series finalé than a season finalé. Once Fox decided to renew Millennium for a third season, the biggest problem facing the staff was the challenge of writing around the apocalypse that had arrived at the end of the second season. It is a problem that hobbled the third season of Millennium coming out of the gate. However, it was not the only such problem.

Guess who's Black?

Guess who’s Black?

Millennium is a show that feels particularly disjointed from year-to-year. It has been argued – quite convincingly – that Millennium was really three different shows, and that no two seasons of Millennium convincingly resemble one another. The third season of Millennium would be a different beast than the second. The Innocents and Exegesis demonstrate that clearly and quite articulately. The two-part season premiere made it quite obvious that Millennium was no longer a show particularly interested in ideas of apocalypse – whether global or personal.

Unfortunately, it seemed like the show had no real idea of what it wanted to be.

"Yep, this is what Chris Carter found when he took the show back."

“Yep, this is what Chris Carter found when he took the show back.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Shockwave, Part I (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.

Re-watching a television show with the benefit hindsight is a particularly intriguing experience. Knowing that certain plot lines or character threads will or won’t pay off can be a liberating experience. While a disappointing ending to a particular story can undermine a lot of what came before, foreknowledge of the inevitable anticlimax allows the viewer to manage their expectations and temper their enthusiasm. It stops the viewer from getting too involved with threads that lead to dead ends, and heightens appreciations for those that pay dividends.

The Temporal Cold War plot on Star Trek: Enterprise never went anywhere. This is rather obvious in hindsight, given that it has been a decade since the end of the show. However, it’s worth acknowledging that many viewers correctly predicted as much on the initial airing of Broken Bow in late 2001. None of the questions raised will be answered, none of the plot threads will be resolved. It will just sit there, nestled snugly in the heart of this Star Trek spin-off, possibly embodying the show’s unfulfilled potential.

Enterprise isn't quite going to make it to seventh (season) heaven...

Enterprise isn’t quite going to make it to seventh (season) heaven…

While the Temporal Cold War lacks a clear resolution, it does provide the impetus for some pretty good storytelling on its own terms. In many respects, the plot works best when it exists as a driving force in the background of an episode – rather than being pushed to the fore. This is probably why Cold Front and Shockwave, Part I work much better than episodes like Shockwave, Part II – episodes that use the Temporal Cold War as a jumping off point to character work and development, rather than an end of itself.

Shockwave, Part I is notable for ending the first season of Enterprise on a cliffhanger. This was the first time that the opening season of a Star Trek had show had closed on a cliffhanger. The other shows closed out their freshman season with open-ended stand-alone stories, with the last episodes in the first seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager emphasising how far their cast had come. In contrast, Shockwave, Part I closes the first year of Enterprise on an honest to goodness “to be continued.” And a good one at that.

Seeking a friend at the end of the world...

Seeking a friend at the end of the world…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Fight or Flight (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.

Fight or Flight is reasonably solid as second episodes go. It’s very clear that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are making a conscious effort to avoid the mistakes of Star Trek: Voyager. There’s a sense that they are trying to give Star Trek: Enterprise its own unique mood and flavour. As such, Fight or Flight feels like a story that isn’t just tailor-made for Enterprise, but is tailor-made for early in the first season of the show. It isn’t a story that could be done by another spin-off, and it’s also not a story that could be done by Enterprise even a year later.

While Fight or Flight works on a conceptual level, the execution feels a little strange. While Broken Bow was a big and bombastic Star Trek pilot with its own feel and rhythm, Fight and Flight feels almost quaint. As a piece of television, it’s constructed in a very meticulous and very precise manner, one that seems suspiciously outdated for a show broadcast in late 2001.

Slugging it out...

Slugging it out…

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