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Non-Review Review: China Salesman

China Salesman is fascinating disaster.

China Salesman is not a good film by any measure, but it is strangely compelling. There is something intoxicating about the film, in spite of its myriad flaws – the awful script, the atrocious dubbing, the clumsy editing, the terrible performances, the muddled storyline, the abundance of nonsensical technobabble. Part of this is down to the sheer abundance of energy that director Tan Bing brings to proceedings. China Salesman whips and whirls, cranks and zooms, pans and swirls with a kinetic energy that renders these flaws almost bedazzling, offering an effect that in some ways evokes a bad trip.

The gun show.

However, China Salesman is perhaps most interesting as a mirror and a prism. It is, like Wolf Warrior II, very much the Chinese equivalent to those old patriotic eighties American action movies like Delta Force or Iron Eagle, the kind of populist nationalist cinema that is currently channeled through franchises like Transformers. As such, there is something intriguing in seeing the image that China Salesman projects into the world, as an assertion of multinational intent to the rest of the world and as a statement of patriotic self-image to the country itself.

China Salesman is terrible. It is also terribly interesting.

The old man and the Seagal.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Extinction (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.

In many respects, The Xindi and Anomaly opened the third season as if it were the first season of a new show. In particular, Anomaly built consciously and cleverly off of Fight or Flight and Strange New World in providing a solid foundation for the year ahead. The comparison works quite well. By that logic, Extinction and Rajiin serve as Unexpected and Terra Nova. They are two of the weakest episodes of the season, harmed by their close proximity to the start of the year. Anybody wanting to reach Twilight or Damage has to get through Extinction and Rajiin.

In many respects, this early lag in the third season demonstrates just how inexperienced the creative team were at long-form serialised storytelling. The only arc comparable to the Xindi arc in the entire Star Trek franchise is the Dominion War arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There, the writers were clever enough to launch the new status quo with an unheralded six-episode interconnected story. The Dominion War had its share of duds, but the opening salvo was magnificently confident.

Archer's not feeling himself lately...

Archer’s not feeling himself lately…

In contrast, the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise suffers out of the gate. The Xindi and Anomaly do good work setting up plot points and character beats that will be of use later in the season, but there is no real sense that the writing staff has any idea what that use might be at this point of the season. Two episodes into the third season, the show is already back to fairly formulaic adventures that stand quite cleanly alone. It is not too difficult to imagine Extinction or Rajiin as episodes in any other season – albeit with some slight tinkering.

However, this is only part of the problem. Long-form storytelling need not become a burden. There is a great deal of value to be had in drifting away from a serialised story arc to tell a quality standalone tale. Unfortunately, Extinction is not a quality standalone tale. In fact, it is one of the worst episodes of Enterprise ever produced. Airing it as the third episode of a bold new season feels like a poor choice.

"C'mon, wouldn't you like to go back to being a torturing and almost genocidal human?"

“C’mon, wouldn’t you like to go back to being a torturing and almost genocidal human?”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Terra Nova (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.

Terra Nova is a rather unfortunate fifth episode for Star Trek: Enterprise. The show is in its first season, so there are bound to be mistakes and missteps along the way. However, Unexpected and Terra Nova provide a one-two punch of unfortunate back-to-back episodes, shows that aren’t just the result of an uncertain creative time stumbling while trying to find their groove. Like Unexpected directly before it, Terra Nova is an episode that is toxic from the ground up.

It is, in short, precisely the kind of story that you don’t want to tell about mankind’s first adventures into the cosmos. While the episode very much evokes the mood and style of classic Star Trek, it also inherits all the franchise’s worst colonial impulses. This is an episode that belongs alongside the more ill-judged entries in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us.

He's got faith, faith of the heart...

He’s got faith, faith of the heart…

Terra Nova takes a fascinating starting point – something very intrinsically tied to the premise of Enterprise – and twists it into a show about our human protagonists dealing with silly off-world people. Those silly off-world people happen to be humans, who need to be reminded of their humanity, in such a way that our protagonists can feel proud and superior about how advanced and sophisticated they are. Those silly humans who have “gone native” could really learn a lot from our super-advanced heroes.

Terra Nova feels like an episode that sets Star Trek back fourteen years, proof that some of the worst aspects of Roddenberry’s vision of the franchise have endured surprisingly well.

On yer bike, Reed...

On yer bike, Reed…

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Star Trek – Mirror, Mirror (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Mirror, Mirror is rightfully iconic.

It is a Star Trek episode that spawned sequels on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a prequel on Star Trek: Enterprise. It codified the whole idea of a “mirror universe” in popular culture, to the point where audiences readily accept the idea of an entire world populated with evil (and possibly sexy) counterparts to our characters. Shows as diverse as Doctor Who and South Park have played with the concept. Indeed, “evil alternate universe doppelganger has a goatee” is a recognisable trope.

... And that was the last time Koenig tried to upstage Shatner...

… And that was the last time Koenig tried to upstage Shatner…

There is a strange irony to all this. The mirror universe is an absurd concept for a number of reasons, and that absurdity is only heightened when it becomes more and more iconic. Turning the idea into a recognisable television cliché inevitably simplifies it. Although Mirror, Mirror is very camp – in the same way that a lot of classic Star Trek is camp – it is a story that has a lot of interesting and clever things to say. These tend to get sanded off through imitation and repetition. (For example, despite wearing the “evil goatee”, mirror!Spock is “a man of integrity.”)

And yet, behind the striking iconic production design and the admittedly absurd premise, Mirror, Mirror ranks as one of the best and most insightful scripts of classic Star Trek. It represents a cautionary tale and critical examination of some of the show’s core tendencies.

Bringing the pain...

Bringing the pain…

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The X-Files – Teso Dos Bichos (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.

It happens.

Every once in a while, there is a misfire. This is especially true when producing a genre television series churning out over twenty episodes a year. Inevitably, some of those episodes will fail; a few will fail spectacularly. Such is the way of things. It is hard to think of a twenty-odd episode season of anything that managed to maintain consistent levels of brilliance for a full season. All you can really hope is that the eventual and inevitable misfire is mostly technical.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

Teso Dos Bichos is a terrible episode of The X-Files. It is a terrible episode of television in general. However, it is terrible in ways that are mostly banal. This isn’t a failure of overreaching ambition, like Fearful Symmetry. It isn’t a missed opportunity, like 3. It isn’t even a racist and sexist nightmare, like Excelsis Dei. Instead, Teso Dos Bichos is just bad television. It is an episode that probably didn’t work on paper, containing elements that were unlikely to work on film either.

Given how strong the third season has been, there’s a desire to brush past Teso Dos Bichos, and pretend it simply did not happen.

Cat people!

Cat people!

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The X-Files – Piper Maru (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.

Piper Maru and Apocrypha continue a pretty clear thematic throughline for the show’s third season mythology episodes.

As with The Blessing Way/Paper Clip and Nisei/731, Piper Maru and Apocrypha tell a story about how we relate to the past. In particular, in keeping with the rest of the third season mythology, it is a show about the legacy of the Second World War. The X-Files is a show that is sceptical of the decisions made by the American government towards the end of the Second World War, particularly as those decisions shaped and moulded the present. In many ways, The X-Files is a show about history and legacy, trauma and consequence.

A fish out of water...

A fish out of water…

Piper Maru and Apocrypha are less direct about this connection than the earlier mythology episodes. They aren’t about the war criminals given safe habour after the Second World War in return for scientific knowledge or tactical advantages. Instead, Piper Maru and Apocrypha are shows about dredging up the past and confronting the consequences of past actions. These two episodes are not only steeped in American popular history, but also in the show’s internal continuity. The majority of what happens here is driven by events we’ve seen in the show.

At the same time, Piper Maru and Apocrypha represent an attempt to boldly expand and push the mythos forward in the same way that Colony and End Game did at this point in the second season. The result is an intriguing two-parter that feels a little muddled and messy, an example of the show stumbling slightly as it tries to grow outwards. Although the mythology is still working a lot more efficiently than it would in later seasons, there is a sense of clutter beginning to filter in.

The eyes have it...

The eyes have it…

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Best of Both Worlds, Part I (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.

So we’re here. It’s the end of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the season where the show really kicked into gear. After a decidedly uneven first and second seasons, where moments of brilliance blended with hours of tedium, the show had really pulled its act together. Even the weakest hours of the season where still competently produced, the average quality increased significantly and the stronger episodes just hit it out of the park.

The Best of Both Worlds is really just the cherry on top. But it’s one hell of a cherry.

He's looking right at us...

He’s looking right at us…

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