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Doctor Who: Orphan 55 (Review)

“He’s moving at thirty-seven klicks an hour.”

“That doesn’t sound like my Benni.”

Like It Takes You Away in the previous season, Orphan 55 provides a something close to a workable model for the Chibnall era as a whole. Unfortunately, Orphan 55 doesn’t quite get there.

One of the strange paradoxes of the Chibnall era is that it often seems like the guest writers have a stronger grasp on its core themes than the showrunner. After all, Demons of the Punjab was perhaps the best single argument for Chibnall’s passive and observational characterisation of the Thirteenth Doctor, a far stronger argument than that articulated in Rosa or Arachnids in the U.K. or any of the episodes with Chibnall’s name on the credits.

“Game over, Doc.”

Orphan 55 draws from an impressive array of influences across the history of Doctor Who, providing a fascinating intersection between “holiday camp gone wrong” episodes like The Macra Terror and Delta and the Bannermen and “future of Earth” episodes like The Ark in Space or The End of the World. Indeed, the positioning of Orphan 55 as the first standalone episode after the premiere is quite canny; it fills what would be the “New Earth” slot on a Russell T. Davies season. However, it offers a much grimmer prognosis. This is appropriate for a much grimmer age.

Like so much of the Chibnall era, Orphan 55 is built around the general impotence of the Doctor. The Doctor is a fictional character, and so cannot save the world. The Moffat era dealt with this question in a more abstract and metaphorical sense in episodes like Extremis, demonstrating the importance of Doctor Who as a story and the Doctor as an idea. The Chibnall era tends to respond to this challenge with dull literalism. The Thirteenth Doctor spends an inordinate amount of her run confronting systemic or societal problems with which she refuses to engage.

A green message.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s passiveness when confronted with monstrosity is one of the more horrifying aspects of the Chibnall era as a whole. In The Ghost Monument, the Doctor refused to hold Ilan to account for the horrors he inflicted on the participants in his race. In Arachnids in the U.K., Jack Robertson just walked away from liability for mass murder in his hotel. In Rosa, the Doctor stage managed the oppression of Rosa Parks, even forcing her companion to be actively complicit in systemic racism.

While the Chibnall era is clearly trying to make a larger point about how the Doctor cannot save the world because she doesn’t exist, this often becomes a bleak and depressing study of how the public imagination can no longer conjure better worlds into being. Demons of the Punjab managed to make the best argument for this approach through careful construction, tying its historical injustices to Yaz’s personal history. Orphan 55 pulls off something similar, primarily by setting the action long after the world has failed to be saved.

Shattering expectations.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Endgame (Review)

Appropriately enough, Star Trek: Voyager ends with a betrayal of itself.

Endgame even frames that betrayal in terms of its own internal logic. The first scene after the teaser finds what remains of the crew attending a tenth anniversary reunion following the successful completion of their mission and their return to Earth. Reginald Barclay, “adopted” member of the family and veteran of Star Trek: The Next Generation, offers a toast. “Twenty three years together made you a family, one I’m proud to have been adopted by. Let’s raise our glasses to the journey.” The room toasts, “To the journey.”

Toast of the town…

This is first point of betrayal. Her glass raised, Admiral Janeway suggests a modification of the toast. “And to those who aren’t here to celebrate it with us.” It is a fair toast given how many crew members Janeway had lost over the course of the journey. However, it also suggests the central thesis of Endgame, which is itself the central thesis of Voyager. It was never really about the journey, despite what any of the crew might say at any given point in the show’s run. It was never about the time spent together, or the family forged. It was never even about the people.

It was about getting home. It was about completing the journey. It was about reaching the end point at the designated time. The journey, the adventure, the exploration; these were never the focus. All that potential, all that possibility, was squandered. Endgame is the story of how Admiral Janeway erases sixteen years of exploration, sixteen years of growth, sixteen years of character development. Admiral Janeway does that so that Voyager can complete its journey after the designated seven years, the expected one-hundred-and-seventy-eight episodes.

Living with herself…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Babel One (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

It seems entirely appropriate that the United trilogy sits in the middle of the fourth season.

The three-parter is not the strongest of the season’s multi-episode epics, abandoning the clean three-act structure that made the Kir’Shara trilogy so successful in favour of a disjointed two-parter-and-coda format that prevents the story from feeling as cohesive as it might. It jolts and starts, never really finding the proper flow for the story that it wants to tell. There is a sense that the production team’s desire to do both a “birth of the Federation” story and a “visit to Andoria” story within the same three-part narrative ultimately hinders the storytelling.

"What do you mean I'm not in the third part?!"

“What do you mean I’m not in the third part?!”

However, there is something satisfying in watching Star Trek: Enterprise commit to the idea of the birth of the Federation. It could be argued that this is an example of the fourth season’s continuity pandering, but the Federation is far more fundamental to the fabric of the franchise than something like Klingon foreheads or that ghost ship from that third season episode. If Enterprise is to be a prequel, it should devote some attention to building the fabric of the shared universe. The Federation is an essential part of the idealistic future of Star Trek.

However, the most compelling aspect of the United has nothing to do with continuity and history. Instead, it is simply reassuring to see Enterprise embracing the franchise’s utopianism and hope for the future, particularly in the context of January 2004.

Shran, Shran, he's our Andorian...

Shran, Shran, he’s our Andorian…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Home (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

If Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II represented a transition between Brannon Braga and Manny Coto, then Home marks the point at which Manny Coto assumes full control of Star Trek: Enterprise.

As befits a season so steeped in Star Trek nostalgia, Home fits a familiar template. Each of three live action spin-offs took a brief timeout after an epic fourth season opener to tell a smaller character-driven story about the response to life-altering trauma. Jean-Luc Picard processed the trauma of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II through the quieter moments of Family. Jake Sisko confronted the loss of his father in The Visitor. Even Seven of Nine faced her disconnection from the Borg Collective in The Gift.

Marriage of inconvenience.

Marriage of inconvenience.

Home is clearly intended to allow the characters (and the show) to work through the issues generated by the epic third season arc, while also dutifully setting up plot threads that will play out across the rest of the season. Home might be a stand-alone episode in many ways, but it does serve to dovetail the third and fourth seasons of the show, working through character points that are hanging over from the show’s third year while also helping to establish elements that will become more important in the season ahead.

Home works rather well as a connecting structure, even if it lacks the raw emotional power of something like Family or The Visitor. It is well worth taking the time to focus upon (and flesh out) this cast. The biggest problem with Home is that so many of these characters feel underdeveloped, particularly compared to the casts of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is hard for those characters to carry an entire episode when they haven’t been properly developed.

"Go climb a rock!"

“Go climb a rock!”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Cold Fire (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.

Cold Fire is an episode that exemplifies the feeling that second season’s treading water.

Cold Fire opens with a somewhat unconventional recap of Caretaker. Unlike most “previously on…” sections of Star Trek: Voyager (or the Star Trek franchise as a whole), this block is narrated by Majel Barrett in-character as the ship’s computer. It becomes clear that Cold Fire is interested in following up on the dangling threads left by Caretaker, with the crew of Voyager encountering the female mate alluded to in Janeway’s conversations with the eponymous Nacene character from Caretaker.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

This should be a big deal. After all, the Caretaker is the character responsible for plucking Voyager and the Val Jean out of the Alpha Quadrant and depositing them on the other side of the galaxy. Finding another being with a similar amount of power presents a very real and tangible opportunity for Janeway to get her crew home. If the Caretaker could pull them all the way across the Milky Way, then it stands to reason that Suspiria could send them all the way back. Cold Fire presents a potential end to Voyager’s journey.

Unfortunately, Cold Fire never really does anything with that storytelling angle. Even when Janeway comes face-to-face with Suspiria at the climax of the episode, she never asks the powerful entity to send her crew home. So Cold Fire feels like an episode that spends forty-five minutes walking in circles, accomplishing little of note.

"It's probably just the inertial dampeners acting up..."

“It’s probably just the inertial dampeners acting up…”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Zero Hour (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.

There was a very real chance that Zero Hour might have been the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise to air.

In fact, it was entirely possible that Zero Hour‘s distinctive (and downright provocative) closing shot of an evil!alien!space!Nazi might have been the last shot of Star Trek to air on television for quite some time.

Time is running out...

Time is running out…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Regeneration (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 April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

It seems like a bit of an understatement to describe Regeneration as highly controversial.

The blu ray release of the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise includes two commentaries for the episode, a sure sign that there is a lot to talk about. On a track recorded in 2005, writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong describe the episode as “infamous.” On a track recorded in 2013, John Billingsley describes how certain segments of fandom considered it a “jumping the shark” moment for the show. That last statement illustrates one of the perverse qualities of Star Trek fandom; one would assume that the viewers turned off by Regeneration would have already tuned out with Acquisition.

We are Borg.

We are Borg.

After all, the decision to bring back the Ferengi in Acquisition is hard to explain. Nobody was clamouring for more Ferengi episodes after Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had gone off the air. Outside of Deep Space Nine, the most enduring impression of the Ferengi was that they had begun their life as “villains that didn’t quite work” and bad quickly been transformed into “comic relief that didn’t quite work.” As such, it is hard to account for the decision to bend continuity in order to introduce the Ferengi into the first season of a prequel show designed to escape the baggage of the larger Star Trek franchise.

On the other hand, it made a great deal of sense to bring back the Borg. After all, the Borg were one of the few Star Trek aliens created after 1969 to make a genuine impression on popular culture. The Borg will never be as iconic as Klingons or Vulcans, but they will always be more iconic than Cardassians or Bajorans. They were also stars of the best-loved Star Trek movie starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg are a big deal; there is a reason that Star Trek: Voyager ran them into the ground.

"Assimilate this!"

“Assimilate this!”

It is no wonder that the Borg are frequently cited in discussions around the future of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. Asked if the creative team would consider bringing the Borg to the rebooted twenty-third century, Roberto Orci answered, “I think we would think about it.” Damon Lindelof was even blunter in his assessment, “You can’t talk about Trek and not talk about the Borg.” While they have undoubtedly been over-exposed and over-used since they first appeared in Q Who?, the Borg are the most distinctive and most successful addition to the Star Trek mythos outside the classic show.

While common sense and experience seemed to weigh against bringing back the Ferengi in Acquisition, it seems that continuity is the only thing holding the Borg back from making an appearance on Enterprise. That said, Sussman and Strong find a clever way around that issue, by remembering the suggestion in Broken Bow that Enterprise is as much a sequel to Star Trek: First Contact as a prequel to the rest of the Star Trek universe.

"Oh no, Cap'n, they've discovered the mood lightin' settin'."

“Oh no, Cap’n, they’ve discovered the mood lightin’ settin’.”

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