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New Escapist Column! The Incredible Expansiveness of “Star Wars”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening, getting ready for the release of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.

One of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the larger Star Wars mythos has always been its expansive nature, the extremely detailed world that George Lucas created to tell a very simple story. That complexity allows for imagination to run wild, for fans to populate that world with their own readings and speculation. However, there’s also an underlying tension at play; in that it exists as part of a marketing machine, it leads to the clutter of the prequels, and it occasionally leads fans to get over-invested with their version of these characters.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! “Charlie’s Angels” and the Franchise-ification of Everything…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine a little while back, looking at the recent Charlie’s Angels film.

Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels is a mess of a film, one that struggles with a variety of problems. Its biggest problems are tonal, with the movie unsure of exactly how it wants to pitch itself: is it a gritty reboot or a campy adventure? There’s a tension at the heart of the film, one which traps it between past and future. Banks clearly wants to reinvent Charlie’s Angels, but she’s also unable to escape the franchise’s history. This is an interesting push-and-pull, one that arguably illustrates the tension of modern franchise film-making.

Most obviously, is it really necessary for a campy seventies sexy spy series to have a “canon”, and is it really necessary for a cinematic adaptation to be beholden to that “canon”? You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Star Trek: Voyager – Season 7 (Review)

The seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager is not the worst season of Star Trek ever. It isn’t even the worst season of this particular show.

It contains nothing as spectacularly ill-judged and tone-deaf as Alliances or Tattoo. None of its central characters are as insufferable as those presented in Parturition. There is nothing here quite as soul-crushingly boring as Twisted. Indeed, the seventh season of Voyager is a mostly competent season of television. Producer Brannon Braga had turned his attention to the launch of Star Trek: Enterprise, leaving the day-to-day running of the series to veteran Kenneth Biller. Biller approached that role as one of simple maintenance. He kept the trains running on time.

The result is that the seventh season of Voyager features no spectacular embarrassments. In its own way, this is an accomplishment for a Star Trek series. After all, final seasons tend to be filled with the kinds of episodes that reflect a production team desperately clutching for story ideas, leaving them open to mockery from a fandom with fixed ideas of what Star Trek should be. Final seasons tend to be home to misfires like Spock’s Brain, … And the Children Shall Lead, Interface, Dark PageForce of Nature, Journey’s End, Prodigal Daughter, The Emperor’s New Cloak.

The seventh season of Voyager largely avoids those sorts of embarrassments. Even episodes that threaten to tip over into high camp, like Drive or Repression, maintain an even keel. The seventh season of Voyager is much more consistent than the seventh seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There is a neatness to it, a stability. It feels like “business as usual” for the series in a way that those other final seasons did not. Episodes like Imperfection or Human Error could easily have come from any of the three prior seasons.

Of course, this is a double-edged compliment. As much as the seventh season of Voyager is more stable and more consistent than other final seasons, it is also much more modest. The final season of The Next Generation was incredibly inconsistent, but it was still playful and ambitious, resulting in gonzo delights like Masks or Parallels. The final season of Deep Space Nine might have sagged in the middle, but it still pushed the boundaries franchise, engaging in biting criticisms in Chimera and attempting to wrap up with a sprawling ten-part series finale.

The seventh season of Voyager is not the worst season of Star Trek ever. it is, however, one of the dullest.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Human Error (Review)

Human Error is a staggering act of creative cowardice.

Star Trek: Voyager is in the literal home stretch of its final season; only seven more episodes remain. By this point in its final season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was mapping out an impressive and ambitious epic tying together seven years of threads into something loosely resembling a single tapestry; the “final chapter” was kicking into high gear with Strange Bedfellows. While Star Trek: The Next Generation was less assuredly wrapping things up, as Star Trek: Generations loomed, there was an air of finality and closure to stories like Journey’s End or Firstborn.

What a dish.

Voyager shows little real sign of progress in the final stretch. There is the occasional piece of housekeeping, such as the awkward decision to get Neelix off the ship in Homestead. There are occasional flashes of thematic reflection on the end of the journey, as in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II. There are also episodes asserting the show’s place within the larger franchise, espousing hollow takes on familiar franchise storytelling in episodes like Critical Care or RepentanceVoyager even shows flashes of anxiety about the franchise iteration that will replace it, in episodes like Friendship One.

Watching the seventh season of Voyager, there is never any doubt that this will be the final season. There is a funereal atmosphere running through the season, that awkward sense of an exhausted athlete grasping desperately for the respite of the finish line. Watching the seventh season of Voyager, fatigue hangs in the air; it is abundantly clear that nobody involved expects an eighth season. However, it is equally obvious that nobody involved with the show has any idea what to do with the seventh season itself.

Not feeling herself.

On its own terms, Human Error is a disappointment in a manner similar to a lot of late Voyager episodes. The premise is highly derivative of a number of relatively recent episodes. As with Imperfection, Seven of Nine experiences a technological malfunction that may kill her due to her Borg implants. As with Someone to Watch Over Me, Seven of Nine experiments with her humanity. As with Pathfinder (and much earlier Hollow Pursuits), a character finds themselves escaping from reality into holographic fantasy. As with Fair Haven, a lead character falls in love with a holographic partner.

Human Error is dull and drab in terms of plotting. Its structure is fairly conventional. It’s secondary plot is underdeveloped, unnecessary and distracting. Its resolution is trite, with Seven of Nine naturally redeeming her earlier failures by saving the crew at the last possible minute using techno-babble and hazily-defined stakes. All of this is pretty standard Voyager plotting. It is not an aberration. There is very little to be said about these elements of the episode. These have been problems with the show for years, and Human Error is not even the most egregious example of any of them.

More like Chako-bae.

The big problem with Human Error is lack of conviction. Human Error is an episode with a premise that requires and demands proper development and exploration. It is an episode that lays down a marker, one that exists primarily so that it can be honoured over the final stretch of the season. Despite the problems within the episode itself, Human Error gambles in a big way on how the rest of the season builds off it. Naturally, Human Error loses this bet, its set-ups never honoured by the episodes that follow. This deals the episode a fatal blow, undercutting it brutally. Human Error is dull and drab, but also pointless.

To be clear, Human Error is not making an unreasonable request of the seven episodes that follow. The premise flowing from Human Error isn’t especially ambitious in the context of early twenty-first century television. Both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine have built skilfully off individual episodes like Human Error, using these set-ups as stepping stones to build something more impressive. Even Voyager has employed that sort of storytelling before, albeit to mixed effect. There is no reason for Human Error to crash so spectacularly, beyond a complete disinterest from Voyager itself.

Don’t bottle it.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Flesh and Blood, Part I (Review)

In its seventh season, Star Trek: Voyager gets nostalgic.

It happens naturally when long-running shows begin the process of wrapping up. It is inevitable that the production team will look back with affection and sincerity towards the early years of their shared adventures. The seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation made a conscious effort to tie up loose ends and to handle long-dangling plot threats. Daimon Bok made a surprise return in Bloodlines, seven years after his first appearance in The Battle. In fact, All Good Things… even sent Picard back in time to relive the events of Encounter at Farpoint.

Going off the grid.

That nostalgia simmers and bubbles through Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The two-parter is openly nostalgic, consciously harking back to the middle seasons of the show. Both parts were aired in a single evening, recalling the broadcast of The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. More to the point, the two-parter brought back the Hirogen for their first appearance since the fourth season, acknowledging that they were perhaps Voyager‘s most successful recurring alien menace.

Unfortunately, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II are a flawed recreation of the past. They are a fake, a simulation, an illusion. They are crafted from a fading memory of the show’s short-lived glory years, and rooted in a number of fundamental misunderstandings about what exactly worked when Voyager was at its best. The result is deeply unsatisfying and frustrating.

They were never really here.

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Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (Review)

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos ends the eleventh season on something of a damp squib.

To be fair, there were a lot of hurdles facing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos from the outset. Most obviously, the expectations of a season finale. Unlike when Doctor Who was first broadcast, season finales are a big deal. They are part of the structure and rhythm of a season of television in a highly competitive market place. Indeed, one of the big innovations of the Davies era was understanding this, with Russell T. Davies building all of his season to bombastic blockbuster season finales.

Hunting their quarry.

There are a lot of expectations heading into a season finale. The episode has to at once exist in the context of what came before and gesture towards the future, satisfy the audience who watched every episode leading into it and offer a compelling reason to stick with the show through a long hiatus. That reason to stick around does not have to be a hook or a plot point, it can simply be, “this show does stuff that nothing else on television is doing.”

However, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos faces a number of problems in this regard. Most obviously, it is only a single episode long, which means it is formally indistinct from the nine episodes before it. More than that, it has to cram a host of plot and character work into that space, which needs to be “bigger” (or even just “more”) than the rest of the season. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has to be a blockbuster episode despite being indistinguishable from Kerblam! or The Witchfinders or It Takes You Away.

Actually, more like Paltraking down their quarry…

There is a reason that Moffat’s two single-episode season finales are among his most divisive, and those were consciously designed to defy the formal expectations of the season finale. Although The Wedding of River Song did not quite work, it was structured more as a fun run-around season opener than an epic season finale, most of its questions long answered. The Name of the Doctor was less of a season finale and more a springboard to The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. Even then, Moffat returned to two-part finales in the Capaldi era.

To be fair, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos might be able to get away with this if the show had been seeding momentum leading into the finale in earlier episodes so that story begins with a sense of stakes. Think about the way that The Long Game set up Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, or the way that Tooth and Claw or Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel built to Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. More applicable to The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, consider the repeated references to missing planets in the lead-in to The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End.

“Orange-a glad it isn’t the stinkin’ Daleks?”

There are undoubtedly aspects of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos that were seeded earlier in the season. Tim Shaw from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Stenza weapons testing in The Ghost Monument, the lost world in The Demons of the Punjab. However, none of these were developed with any sense of urgency, nor maintained across the length the season. None of them make any lasting impression. It is a minor miracle that any of the characters remember Tim Shaw, as he was never a compelling villain in the first place.

The result is a season finale that aspires towards a sense of scale that never feels earned, that never pays off, that never engages. It is a good thing that Resolutions will arrive in a little over three weeks, as it’s very hard to imagine The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos sustaining audience interest until the series returns in 2020.

“Battlefield: Ranskoor Av Kolos.”

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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an amazing Spider-man movie.

There is no other way to describe it. Into the Spider-Verse is a clean lock for the best superhero film of the year, neatly leapfrogging the superlative Black Panther. Into the Spider-Verse is also the best animated film of the year, placing comfortably ahead of The Breadwinner or Incredibles 2. In fact, it seems fairly safe to describe Into the Spider-Verse as the best feature film starring Spider-Man since Spider-Man II. Even that feels like hedging, and would be a very closely run race.

Just dive on in.

Into the Spider-Verse is a creative triumph. It is a fantastically constructed movie, in virtually every way. The film’s unique approach to animation will inevitably dominate discussions, and understandably so. Into the Spider-Verse is a visually sumptuous piece of cinema that looks unlike anything ever committed to film. However, the film’s storytelling is just as impressive if decidedly (and consciously) less showy in its construction. Adding a phenomenal cast, Into the Spider-Verse is just a film that works in an incredibly infectious and engaging way.

Into the Spider-Verse does whatever a Spider-Man movie can. And then some.

Suits him.

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