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My 12 for ’18: “You Were Never Really Here” & What You Never Really Saw

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number eight.

The premise of You Were Never Really Here suggests a certain type of film.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe. The audience learns very little about Joe explicitly through exposition of dialogue, his back story and motivations suggested by quick cut flashbacks. As with a lot of You Were Never Really Here, director Lynne Ramsay understands something that may seem counter-intuitive to cinema, the notion that what is unseen might be as important as what is explicitly shown. Joe hunts down paedophiles and rescues children from their clutches.

That description suggests a thriller or an action movie, rooted in visceral and tangible violence. It might work as a direct-to-video exploitation film starring some actor with which mainstream audiences have no familiarity. It might also play well as a Liam Neeson release in early January, something akin to an even grittier Taken. At the more extreme end of the scale, it could play like a cousin to Joel Schumacher’s weird and overlooked 8mm.

What is so refreshing about You Were Never Really Here is that it doesn’t play like any of those, and is instead very much its own thing.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Thirty Days (Review)

Thirty Days is a fascinating misfire.

Thirty Days is build around a number of interesting ideas. In terms of character, there is the framing device that finds Tom Paris sentenced to spend one month in the brig after an act of crass insubordination, suggesting a relapse into the “bad boy” persona that was largely forgotten after Ex Post Facto, barring the occasional revival for episodes like Vis á Vis. It also hints at questions of discipline on the ship, something around which Star Trek: Voyager has skirted in the past in episodes like Prime Factors and Manoeuvres. There is a compelling story here, somewhere.

Watching Thirty Days can feel like…

In terms of science-fiction plot elements, Thirty Days features the first ocean planet in the history of the Star Trek franchise. That is interesting of itself. What wonders lurk within an ocean world? What would life look like had it never left the sea and set foot on land? There is something decidedly pulpy and magical about a planet that has no surface of which to speak, instead comprised of waves and tides. Even with the flimsiest of plots, this element alone should provide fodder for an exciting installment.

Unfortunately, Thirty Days fumbles both of these interesting elements, falling victim to a recurring issue with the plotting on Voyager. The pacing is awkward, the plot points are under-developed, the framing device is hackneyed. The script for Thirty Days seems far more concerned about hitting the forty-five minute mark than it does with using these elements to tell a compelling story. The result is a bit of a wash.

Water conservation.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Fair Trade (Review)

In theory, Fair Trade is precisely the episode that Star Trek: Voyager needs right now.

From the outset, the show has struggled with several major problems. Superficially, Voyager has struggled to distinguish the Delta Quadrant from the Alpha Quadrant, to the point that the Kazon felt like low-rent Klingons and the various aliens-of-the-week seemed largely indistinguishable from the aliens-of-the-week featured on the sibling shows. More fundamentally, the show failed to conjure an air of mystery and intrigue about the region. Everything about the show felt too safe, right down to the characters. This was a show where terrorists became model officers.

Venting plasma...

Venting plasma…

Fair Trade feels like it should offer the perfect remedy to all of this. The opening scenes find Voyager brushing up against “the Nekrit Expanse.” It is a region of space that is pointedly different and alien. Neelix has no idea what lies beyond. The sensors cannot penetrate it. Voyager is forced to dock at a local space station to take supplies, one crowded with aliens of multiple species engaged in shady dealings. More than that, the episode hinges on the neglected character of Neelix. It returns to early undeveloped suggestions the Neelix is not all he claims to be.

However, in practice, Fair Trade is disappointing. The episode lacks the courage of its convictions, both as a script of itself and as clear demarcation within the third season. It is a show rich with promise that offers up any number of intriguing ideas, but lacks the courage necessary to follow through on them.

In a bit of a Wix.

In a bit of a Wix.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Hard Time (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.

Hard Time is a fantastic (and vastly underrated) episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The episode tends to get overlooked in discussions about the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, perhaps owing to the high average quality of the season or the fact that it arrives in the middle of what is admittedly the season’s weakest run of episodes. However, in spite of all that, Hard Time is an exemplary piece of Deep Space Nine. It is certainly the best of the series’ “O’Brien must suffer” episodes, and a showcase for Star Trek veteran Colm Meaney. In its exploration of trauma and recovery, and cycles of violence, it taps into the heart of the show.

Not phased in the slightest...

Not phased in the slightest…

That said, Hard Time arrives at a point where Deep Space Nine is nudging closer and closer to serialisation. The show has begun to embrace long-form storytelling, as evidenced by the ripple effect of the changes to the status quo in The Way of the Warrior and the way that little plot threads weave through the season. The show has not yet reached the point at which it can structure six- or ten-episode arcs, but it is getting close. Deep Space Nine is clearly moving towards what is (for Star Trek at least) a fairly novel style of television storytelling.

As such, Hard Time is particularly striking for the fact that it is a purely episodic adventure. The episode puts Miles O’Brien through hell, having him struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder while trying to reintegrate into society. This is the kind of plot that feels more suited to a long-running mini-arc than Worf and Dax’s arguments about the relative merits of bladed weapons or Worf’s decision to move to the Defiant. Instead, O’Brien’s trauma is dealt with over the course of a single episode. Hard Time plays as a defence of the tradition television episode structure.

Growing the beard...

Growing the beard…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Damage (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 stock comparison for Damage is In the Pale Moonlight.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, both are Star Trek episodes that hinge on a series of morally questionable decisions made by the lead actor in a moment of sheer desperation. In In the Pale Moonlight, Benjamin Sisko starts a chain of events that builds towards the assassination of a Romulan Senator to trick the Romulans into joining the war effort. In Damage, Jonathan Archer resorts to piracy in order to obtain the parts necessary to make a meeting with Degra in order to plead against the use of the Xindi weapon.

A met a man who wasn't there...

A met a man who wasn’t there…

There are some notable differences, of course. In purely practical plotting terms, Sisko dominates the narrative of In the Pale Moonlight; the entire story is related directly by Sisko to the audience in the form of a personal log. In contrast, Damage is split between the demands of Archer’s own arc in the episode and various other continuity elements; the episode needs to get Archer back to his ship and devote a considerable amount of time to T’Pol’s addiction. As a result, it lacks the keen focus that made In the Pale Moonlight so compelling.

At the same time, there is something much more direct about Damage. Sisko is quite detached from the horrors of In the Pale Moonlight, with the audience insulated from his choices through the use of a framing device and Sisko himself insulated through his use of Garak to conduct all the unpalatable actions. In contrast, Archer makes a point to bloody his own hands over the course of Damage. He doesn’t have somebody else to make the decision for him; he leads the boarding party himself.

Everything comes apart...

Everything comes apart…

It is a very bold an unsettling choice, a culmination of a character arc that has been pushing Archer towards this sort of horrific choice since Anomaly. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise has not been entirely consistent when it comes to its character arcs, working better in broad strokes than in fine detail. Nevertheless, Damage represents a very clear commitment to the promise of the third season of Enterprise; an interrogation of the franchise’s core values in an increasingly morally ambiguous world.

Damage is a deeply uncomfortable and unsettling episode of Star Trek, but it is arguably a necessary one. It is, in many ways, a criticism of the moral absolutism that informs a lot of discussion about terrible situations, suggesting that reality is often a lot more complicated than people might hope it would be.

Drowning his sorrows...

Drowning his sorrows…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Azati Prime (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.

If you can end on a high note, the audience will forgive a lot.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is one of the boldest and most ambitious seasons of Star Trek ever produced; it is certainly the most adventurous season of the franchise to air outside of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. However, on an episode-to-episode basis, the quality is quite variable. There are great episodes (Impulse, Twilight), underrated episodes (North Star, Exile), fun episodes (Stratagem), and experimental episodes (Harbinger), but there are also a lot of episodes that are more interesting in theory than in practice.

Explosive finalé...

Explosive finalé…

It becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the season that the writing staff did not plan the year-long arc far enough in advance and that the show struggles to figure out where it wants to go after the initial burst of speed wears off. There are even a couple of outright stinkers that rank with the worst that the franchise ever produced. However, there is a lot to be said for an ending. The third season of Enterprise hits a few speed bumps along the way, but it manages to rally for an impressive and largely satisfying conclusion.

Azati Prime begins the march towards the end of the season. It was the first episode to be filmed after the Christmas break, suggesting that it was the work of a revitalised writing staff and an energised production team. More than that, it was broadcast as the last episode before a six-week break in the broadcast schedule, suggesting that everybody involved knew exactly the kind of hit that they had on their hands. It injects an incredible energy into a show that might be racing towards its own apocalypse.

Future's end...

Future’s end…

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