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Luke Cage – The Main Ingredient (Review)

The second season knows what the audience is waiting for.

From the moment it was announced that the lead-up to The Defenders would include standalone series for Luke Cage and Iron Fist, fans anticipated the pairing of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. Even before Luke Cage, let alone Iron Fist, had premiered, fans were clamouring for a team-up miniseries. As early as November 2016, following the release of the first season of Luke Cage, actor Mike Colter was teasing the inevitable collaboration between these two character, “Yeah, we’re getting ready to do Heroes For Hire eventually, come on. We’re gonna do it.”

There’s a credible argument to be made that comic book fans were more excited about seeing Luke Cage and Danny Rand on screen together than they were to see the characters teamed up with Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones. After all, the characters have a long shared history. Both originated as part of Marvel’s engagement with exploitation cinema during the seventies, thrown together into the same comic book as a pairing when neither character could keep a solo title afloat. Iron Fist and Power Man merged together to launch Power Man and Iron Fist in April 1978.

The unlikely combination of grounded bulletproof black man and aloof rich white kung-fu master stuck a chord with audiences, creating a comic book that was utterly unlike anything else on stands. While neither character could sustain a solo book for an extended period, Power Man and Iron Fist sold well enough that it went from a bimonthly title to a monthly book in May 1981. The series ran for seventy-six issues, finally retired in September 1986, reflecting the changes in an industry about to be rocked by Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Danny Rand and Luke Cage have a long shared history together. Still, it is remarkable that Luke Cage managed to pull off this minor organisational feat. Barring Luke’s introduction in the first season of Jessica Jones and Frank Castle debut in the second season of Daredevil, Marvel Netflix series generally focus on crossovers of supporting cast members: Jeri Hogarth appearing in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, Eight Diagram Dragon Palm and Dragon Plays with Fire or Foggy Nelson appearing in AKA Sole Survivor and All Souled Out.

Still, Danny Rand’s guest appearance in The Main Ingredient might be the best thing that has been done with this iteration of the character.

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Luke Cage – If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right (Review)

The past stays with us.

Part of what is interesting about the second season of Luke Cage is the manner in which it engages with, and builds from, what came before. Continuity is a long-standing fixture of superhero narratives, most obviously in the four-colour source material. Fictional characters accrue a history, as individual issues and appearances add up to create a complex set of interlocking details that define and shape the character. It is in some ways comparable to how individual histories help to forge identities and determine who we are.

Of course, it should be noted that superhero movies and television shows have carried over some of this continuity from the comic books. Although cinema’s first “shared universe” was arguably constructed between the Universal monster movies of the thirties, the modern popularity of the term is driven by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an elaborate physical construct that ties together everything from Avengers: Infinity War to Daredevil to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The idea is that, in theory, events from one end of this universe might ripple over to another. After all, Misty can drop a casual reference to “the Incident” into an interrogation in Straighten It Out, a nod to the events of The Avengers which can be used to justify the proliferation of advanced technology within this shared universe. Overlap can happen in the strangest places, such as a character mentioned by Misty in For Pete’s Sake turning up a week or so later in an episode of Cloak & Dagger.

At the same time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has struggled to build a truly interconnected universe, in part due to the commercial of realities of film and television production. As a result, Robert Downey Junior is highly unlikely to pop by Hell’s Kitchen for an homage to Born Again, while the Hulk can only be explicitly referenced as “the big green dude” in AKA It’s Called Whiskey or “the green monster” in All Souled Out. The characters from The Defenders are highly unlikely to ever have to worry about Thanos’ finger snap, after all.

This strange dissonance and discontinuity that exists between the various facets of the live action Marvel Cinematic Universe is part of what makes the strong continuity connections between the first and second seasons of Luke Cage so compelling, the sense of a tightly woven narrative that is expanding in a logical way from earlier events, where characters’ current behaviours are largely shaped and defined by what the audience has already seen. It’s a very effective use of continuity, particularly for a comic book television series.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Fury (Review)

Normally, the return of an old cast member to an established show is a cause for celebration, akin to a belated family reunion.

The obvious examples involve the appearances of cast members from other shows on later spin-offs. Think of the reverence and sincerity with which Star Trek: The Next Generation treated Spock and Scotty in episodes like Unification, Part I, Unification, Part II and Relics. Think about the delight with which Star Trek: Voyager greeted Geordi LaForge in Timeless or Deanna Troi in Pathfinder. Even when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine subverted expectations with Jonathan Frakes’ appearance in Defiant, it was still joyful. If anything, Star Trek: Enterprise went too far in accommodating Troi and Riker in These Are the Voyages…

Self-control.

Even within individual shows, the return of long-absent cast members is often treated as an opportunity to celebrate that character, and perhaps even to acknowledge past missteps involving them. Yesterday’s Enterprise brought back the character of Tasha Yar, and used the opportunity to rewrite her mean-spirited and pointless death in Skin of Evil. When mirror!Bareil visited in Resurrection, the episode became a meditation upon how the character’s intrinsic decency was strong enough to transcend dimensions and to define even the worst version of himself.

This approach to the return of established characters makes a great deal of sense for a wide variety of reasons. Most obviously, the production team have gone out of their way to recruit these actors for this specific purpose; it makes sense that these episodes should serve as a celebration of their contributions to the franchise. Even beyond that, it is safe to say that almost any lead character on a Star Trek series has something resembling a fan base; think about the ominously-named “Friends of Vedek Bareil.” Why bring back a character, and attract in those fans, just to do something horrific?

That healthy blue glow.

All of this serves to make Fury all the more perplexing. Fury is an episode of Voyager that effectively resurrects the character of Kes, a regular on the first three seasons of Voyager who departed the series in The Gift at the start of the fourth season. The return of Kes is a strange choice, in large part because the production team often struggled with what to do with the character while she was part of the core cast. Still, there are any number of interesting possibilities. And there is the possibility that, like Yesterday’s Enterprise or Resurrection, the production team might use the occasion to say something interesting about Kes.

Unfortunately, Fury is a spectacular mess of an episode with half-developed character motivations and a highly surreal premise that undercuts a lot of the appeal of bringing Kes back in the first place.

Having its cake and eating it too.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Pathfinder (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has always had an awkward relationship with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was always the rebellious middle-child, prone to make bold and defiant gestures like blowing up a surrogate of the Enterprise in The Jem’Hadar, bringing Jonathan Frakes back to play Riker’s evil transporter duplicate in Defiant, and have former Enterprise crew member Chief Miles Edward O’Brien praise Sisko as the best captain in the fleet in The Adversary. It was a television series that was dedicated to defining its own unique identity, and at least some of that identity was defined in opposition to its direct predecessor.

Taking his Neelix.

In contrast, Voyager always felt a little more desperate, a little too eager to assert its connection to The Next Generation and to insist upon itself as a spiritual successor to that beloved (and incredibly successful) series. Despite the fact that Voyager was set primarily in the Delta Quadrant, the series never missed an opportunity to crossover with The Next Generation. Barclay appeared as a hologram in Projections, Riker was summoned across the universe in Death Wish, LaForge was rendered a captain in the future presented in Timeless.

This is to say nothing of the minor crossovers taken at every available opportunity; the use of Q and the Borg Queen among the relatively small number of recurring guest stars, the original plan to build 11:59 around Guinan, the decision to produce the dire False Profits as a sequel to the dire The Price. Repeatedly over the show’s run, Voyager feels very much like a young child digging through its elder sibling’s wardrobe for something that might possible be claimed as a hand-me-down. It is depressing, particularly considering the raw potential that was baked into the premise of Voyager.

Course correction.

Pathfinder is perhaps the apex of this approach. It is effectively a stealth episode of The Next Generation, packaged and released under the Voyager brand. The primary plot of Pathfinder focuses on two characters from The Next Generation sitting around and talking about how great Voyager is, with one of those characters even escaping into a holographic fantasy of life on board the ship to help him think. In many ways, Pathfinder could be seen to prefigure These Are the Voyages…, the catastrophic finale to Star Trek: Enterprise that borrowed the same template and somehow pushed it even further.

There is a smell of desperation about Pathfinder. Whatever the plot of the episode might suggest, Voyager feels more lost than ever.

The Last Generation.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Voyager Conspiracy (Review)

The Voyager Conspiracy builds off the nostalgia of One Small Step, paving the way for the nostalgia of Pathfinder.

One of the more interesting aspects of the final two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager is the way in which the show embraces a weird nostalgia, both for the utopian future of the larger Star Trek franchise and also for its own earlier seasons. To be fair, the seeds for this nostalgia were arguably sown during the fifth season, with an increased emphasis on the events of Caretaker in episodes like Night, Relativity and Equinox, Part I, as well as elements like Janeway’s exploration of her family history in 11:59, the fake Earth in In the Flesh, and the return to the Maquis in Extreme Risk.

“What’s all this buzz about?”

Nevertheless, the sixth and seventh seasons of Voyager embrace the nostalgia that has been woven into the series from the outset, the journey toward the “familiar” and the “recognisable.” After all, Voyager has always been a show about the desire to return, but it is particularly interesting to see that urge to go backwards including metaphorical journeys into the history of both the Star Trek franchise and Voyager itself. The final seasons of Voyager apply the idea of returning home reflexively, it often feeling like a desire to slip backwards in time as much as space.

It is interesting to wonder what drives this nostalgia for the early years of Voyager in these final two seasons. Perhaps this wistful yearning is driven by the fact that the show is approaching its end, and is reflecting upon its own nostalgia. Perhaps the series is anxious at being the only Star Trek show on the air for the first time in its run, hoping to return to the safety and security of those early years. Perhaps it ties into a broader cultural anxiety about the millennium, a reflection of the same “end of history” anxiety that informed stories like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Living Witness.

Getting into her head.

Whatever the reason, The Voyager Conspiracy feels like an exploration of the Voyager‘s continuity. The plot of the episode finds Seven of Nine effectively binge-watching the first few seasons of the show and trying to structure them into something resembling a cohesive story arc. In doing so, The Voyager Conspiracy includes an uncharacteristic selections of nods and references to earlier episodes; Caretaker, Cold FireManoeuvres, The Gift, Message in a Bottle, The Killing Game, Part I, The Killing Game, Part IIDark Frontier, Part IDark Frontier, Part II.

As such, it is an oddity in the larger context of Voyager, a television series largely defined by the absence of episode-to-episode continuity. Indeed, it is quite telling that The Voyager Conspiracy treats such continuity as inherently dangerous and destabilising influence on Voyager.

Dinner table conversation.

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Star Trek: Voyager – One Small Step (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager marks the end of the future.

Many fans would point to Star Trek: Enterprise as the moment that the larger Star Trek franchise turned its gaze backwards and embraced a sense of broad nostalgia for a future that was already behind that explored in the original series. After all, the last television series of the Berman era took the franchise back to its roots and paved the way for both J.J. Abrams’ pseudo-reboot in Star Trek and for Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman’s prequel in Star Trek: Discovery.

First (and Last) Flight.

However, this overlooks the importance of Voyager in signposting this shift. In some ways, Voyager represents the end of the final frontier. Chronologically speaking, Endgame is the last episode of the larger Star Trek franchise, the future beyond the finale explored only in Star Trek: Nemesis and as part of the back story to the rebooted Star Trek. Chronologically speaking, Voyager represents the last television series within the Star Trek universe. However, Voyager very carefully and very consciously seeds the nostalgia that would later envelope the franchise.

This is obvious in any number of ways. Voyager is a show that is literally about the desire to return home rather than to push forward. Caretaker established the show as an extended homage to fifties pulp storytelling. The politics of the series – reflected in episodes as diverse as Real Life, Displaced and Day of Honour – were decidedly conservative. Even the genre trappings of the series were often framed in terms of mid-twentieth century pulp fiction; the space lift in Rise, the broad allegory in Innocence, the atomic horror of Jetrel.

We come not to praise Voyager, but to bury it.

However, all of this is rooted in a very conscious yearning on the part of Voyager to connect to its roots. Numerous small scenes across the seven-season run of the show hint at this sentiment; Janeway discussing the romantic past in Flashback, the literal journey home in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the retrofuturism of Tom Paris’ various holoprogrammes, Janeway’s fascination with her long-lost ancestor in 11:59. There was a sense that Voyager was a series as intent on journeying backwards in time as much as space, even outside of its time travel obsession.

One Small Step stands out as one of the most obvious and blatant examples of this nostalgia within Voyager, in many ways feeling (like Friendship One in the subsequent season) like an attempt to seed the literal prequel that would materialise in Enterprise.

It turns out that John Kelly crossed over into a subspace anomaly drawn by Jack Kirby.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – What You Leave Behind (Review)

Ending a television series is always a daunting proposition, even with ten episodes allocated to that purpose.

There are very few “perfect” television finales, very few final episodes that perfectly encapsulate everything that made a television series great. Indeed, many popular television series end with underwhelming finales. Some are even retroactively tarnished by this legacy; The Finale for SeinfeldDaybreak for Battlestar GalacticaThe End for Lost. To its credit, the Star Trek franchise arguably has one perfect finale with All Good Things…, the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A touching conclusion…

It might have been greedy to ask for two such perfect finales, especially in such close proximity to one another. What You Leave Behind is not a perfect finale by any measure. It is clumsy in places, it makes bad choices in others. The audience can feel the budgetary constraints on the production team at certain points, and the time constraints on the writing team at others. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does not end with a “perfect” two-part episode. It ends in a messy fashion.

Still, even if What You Leave Behind is not a perfect television finale, it is a good one. What You Leave Behind doesn’t do everything that it could do, but it does everything that it needs to. While clumsiness and awkwardness hold the episode back from perfection, they exist in such a way as to add to its charm. What You Leave Behind captures the spirit of Deep Space Nine, in its successes and its failures. What You Leave Behind is a finale that speaks to the core essence of its show, to its best and its worst selves in the same breath.

The big goodbye.

The result is a finale that feels satisfying and earned, despite its narrative miscalculations. What You Leave Behind is true to Deep Space Nine, and focuses primarily on trying to pay off seven years of character threads and two years of story. Its gravest mistakes are inherited, the result of decisions made more than a year earlier in episodes like Waltz or The Reckoning that were allowed to fester and grow over the following thirty-odd episodes. Even in its failures, What You Leave Behind is trying to do right by its story.

There is a large gulf in quality between All Good Things… and What You Leave Behind. However, that gap is smaller than the space that separates What You Leave Behind from Turnabout Intruder, Endgame or These Are the Voyages… For all its issues, there is something heartbreaking in What You Leave Behind. There is a sense that this is truly the end of the line, that things have changed and the world keeps right on spinning.

We all need a little space…

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