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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part II (Review)

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Haunting of Deck Twelve (Review)

It seems strange that Neelix was not a larger part of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, Neelix never disappeared into the ensemble to the same degree as characters like Chakotay, Kim and Tuvok. However, the series often struggled with how best to approach the character and how to make him work. It is notable that the production team went to the effort of writing Neelix off the show shortly before the seventh season finale, sending him to live with a colony of (very far from home) Talaxians in Homestead and consigning him to a cameo in Endgame. The character was often just there, his role hazy and undefined.

A Briefing With Death!
Errr, I mean, Neelix.

Of course, there were reasons for this. Neelix had been drafted on to the crew as an expert on the Delta Quadrant in Caretaker, and it made sense that this role would become increasingly redundant as time went on. By Fair Trade, Neelix was largely redundant, his knowledge exhausted. More than that, the early seasons of Voyager anchored Neelix’s character development to an abusive relationship with two-year-old. The toxicity of Neelix’s relationship with Kes in episodes like PhageTwisted and Parturition made it hard to invest in Neelix as a character worthy of attention or effort.

However, across the seven seasons of Voyager, there is a strange sense that Neelix is perhaps the single character most perfectly adapted to Voyager. He is the character who has developed in the direction that is perhaps most compatible with what Voyager has become, both in how it tells its stories and what it uses those stories to talk about. More than any other character on Voyager, Neelix is the character with the deepest roots in Delta Quadrant history and the character who is most firmly committed to oral traditions of storytelling, both recurring motifs within Voyager.

Smoke and mirrors.

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Non-Review Review: Mission – Impossible: Fallout

Mission: Impossible – Fallout has the best third act of any blockbuster in years.

To be fair, the first two acts are highly enjoyable on their own terms, with writer and director Christopher McQuarrie building and maintaining momentum across the film’s near-two-and-a-half hour runtime. As expected of the franchise, Fallout is peppered with memorable set pieces that push the plot along with an endearing commitment to in-camera action set-ups, impressive stunt choreography and ambitious imagination; skydiving through a thunderstorm, a brutal bathroom brawl, a daring mid-movie motorcade abduction, a three-dimensional topographical pursuit.

Snow escape.

While all of these elements work well, with the bathroom brawl in particular serving as a worth addition to the franchise’s set piece canon, the final act of Fallout is a masterclass in blockbuster film-making. It is a genuinely dizzying piece of spectacle, a soaring accomplishment that manages to ratchet up the suspense for the better part of forty minutes, making excellent use of an ensemble in close geographic proximity but in very different situations. McQuarrie skilfully understands the rhythm and the tempo of the scene, crosscutting beautifully between the various strands to sustain the tension.

Fallout is not the best film in the Mission: Impossible franchise; it isn’t quite the all-rounder that Mission: Impossible III was, and it lacks the gleefully demented sustained adrenaline rush of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. However, it is a testament to the remarkable and sustained quality of the franchise, and the best movie of the summer to this point.

Just dive right in…

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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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