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Star Trek: Voyager – Virtuoso (Review)

Virtuoso is an interesting companion piece to Blink of an Eye.

Blink of an Eye was in many ways an exploration and reflection of Star Trek as a multimedia franchise, looking at the way in which the franchise has touched and shaped contemporary culture in the thirty-odd years since its inception. As part of this, the episode touched on fandom in a variety of ways, whether the abstract fandom of those individuals inspired by the series to accomplish great things or the more specific fandom including merchandise. Blink of an Eye was very much an episode about loving Star Trek.

Music to our ears.

As a result, Virtuoso feels like a very strange choice to directly follow Blink of an Eye. The two episodes are not connected by plot, outside of the basic idea that the EMH might spend an extended period of time on an alien planet without access to Voyager. After all, Star Trek: Voyager had committed itself to producing standalone episodic storytelling. However, Virtuoso is also something of a metaphor for Star Trek fandom, a look at what it is to love a piece of popular entertainment and to eagerly embrace it.

Unfortunately, the proximity to Blink of an Eye does no favours for Virtuoso, emphasising the script’s weaknesses and tone-deafness. Virtuoso is an episode that feels very pointed and cynical in its portrayal of fandom, very broad and very unpleasant. It is a clumsy and muddled piece of television, on that struggles to hit the right notes.

Small pleasures.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy (Review)

With Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Star Trek: Voyager is back to business as usual.

The first episode produced after the departure of Ronald D. Moore, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is in many ways an archetypal Voyager story. Equinox, Part II was the second part of a season-bridging two-parter; Survival Instinct was a dark fable about consequences and trauma that was the last script credited to on the franchise’s most beloved writers; Barge of the Dead was a surreal and ambiguous adventure into the Klingon afterlife. As such, it is strange that an episode that opens with a playful operatic number about Tuvok’s pon farr should mark a return to normality.

“My Delta Quadrant TripAdvisor review is going to be scathing!”

Nevertheless, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is a very neat standalone episode with a clear beginning, middle and end. It is built around the character of the EMH, leaning into actor Robert Picardo’s comedic chops. It is very much in keeping with Voyager‘s recurring fascination with the notion of fractured reality as expressed in Projections or Deadlock or Retrospect, and also in using a technologically-derived character to literalise the process of a psychological breakdown as in Darkling, Infinite Regress or Latent Image.

Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy story has its own themes and ideas, and everything is neatly resolved by the closing credits. It is a reminder that the serialisation that defined Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would remain the exception, rather than the rule, that it would not be inherited by its surviving sibling. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy could almost be watched at any point in the show’s run, although the involvement of Seven of Nine would suggest the final four seasons. Nevertheless, the episode never feels particularly tethered to this moment or this season.

Fantasy figure.

However, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is also an example of how this approach can work. Voyager received (and deserves) a lot of criticism for failing to evolve with the times, for allowing the Star Trek franchise to fall behind the curve of contemporary television science fiction. However, the series was occasionally capable of demonstrating the merits of standalone episodes, the appeal of being able to transition from one self-contained story to another twenty-six times in the course of a season.

Of course, the issue was that a lot of Voyager episodes were bland and forgettable. However, every once in a while the series would produce a self-contained episode that demonstrated the appeal of this narrative model; Remember, Distant Origin, Concerning Flight, Living WitnessSomeone to Watch Over Me. Appropriately enough, coming after another turbulent period in the history of the show, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is another fine example of this capacity to construct satisfying and engaging stand-alone narratives.

Painting a pretty picture.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Someone to Watch Over Me (Review)

Someone to Watch Over Me is a decidedly atypical episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

The episode’s subplot, focusing on Neelix and a disorderly alien ambassador, harks back to the old diplomacy subplots of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the crews would be asked to ferry ambassadors around only for terrible things to happen. There are any number of examples of that story template across the two earliest incarnations of the show; Journey to BabelElaan of Troyius, Is There in Truth No Beauty?Lonely Among UsLoud as a Whisper, SarekThe PriceMan of the PeopleData’s DayViolationsLiaisons.

The EMH rose to the occasion.

To be fair, Voyager has done a couple of these episodes before. There are a number of episodes in which the ship acts as a diplomatic courier shipping aliens from one destination to another or welcoming on board representatives of an alien culture; the subplot of Innocence comes to mind, as does the set-up of Remember. However, by and large, these diplomacy-driven subplots are a lot less frequent on Voyager than they were on the original Star Trek or The Next Generation. As such, the Neelix subplot feels very much like a throwback.

However, the primary plot of Someone to Watch Over Me feels very much like an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, an intimate romantic character study about an attraction between two individuals. Someone to Watch Over Me is very much an archetypal love story, one without the flavour of adventure or stakes defines other Star Trek romances like Captain’s Holiday or Counterpoint or Gravity. This is a low-stakes interpersonal attraction, very much in the style of Looking for Par’Mach In All the Wrong Places, His Way or Chrysalis.

A snap decision.

In fact, the basic plot of Someone to Watch Over Me is so archetypal that it can be traced back to number of classical inspirations. This is nothing new. The Star Trek franchise has long borrowed inspiration from various classics; Favourite Son and Bliss owe a great deal to The Odyssey and Moby Dick, for example. However, the choice of influences on Someone to Watch Over Me feels more like Deep Space Nine than Voyager; it draws from Pygmalion and its various adaptations, along with the early eighties comedy My Favourite Year.

The result is a decidedly strange blend of classic Star Trek storytelling that feels fresh and exciting in the context of Voyager. In many ways, Juggernaut was a showcase of Voyager‘s preference for blockbuster plot-driven storytelling. However, Someone to Watch Over Me is something much more compelling and intriguing. Someone to Watch Over Me is a character-driven episode of Voyager, and a very impressive and engaging one at that.

Putting the “ass” in ambassador.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Latent Image (Review)

Latent Image is a powerful allegorical piece of Star Trek, a prime example of how Star Trek: Voyager could occasionally spin gold from its shift towards a more “archetypal Star Trek” template. It is a story that could easily have been told with Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example.

At the same time, Latent Image is a story that touches on many of the core themes of Voyager, many of the show’s key recurring fixations and fascinations. It is an episode about the link between memory and identity, about the importance of preserving history rather than burying it; it touches upon both the metaphorical manipulation of history in stories like RememberDistant Origin and Living Witness and the literal manipulation of the past in stories like Future’s End, Part IFuture’s End, Part IIYear of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.

Picture imperfect.

However, it filters that experience through Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky’s recurring fascination with themes of identity and self-definition. The writers have often used the artificial characters on Voyager to explore the malleability of self, how easily the sense of self might be eroded or decayed; the EMH grappled with this challenge in Projections and Darkling, while Seven wrestled with it in Infinite Regress. The artificial characters on Voyager frequently seemed on a verge of a nervous breakdown.

Latent Image is notable for wedding these two concepts together, for integrating these two concepts and exploring the manipulation of an individual’s history as the root of an identity crisis. What happens to the EMH in Latent Image is at once an extension of the dysfunction suggested in Projections and Darkling as well as a more intimate exploration of the cultural identity crises in episodes like RememberDistant Origin and Living Witness. Latent Image suggests that memory is the thread that ties identity together. Without that continuity of self, everything unravels.

A bone to pick with him.

As such, Latent Image exists in an interesting space. It is a story that works very well as a high-concept character study, focusing on the nature of the EMH has a computer programme. Although episodes like Pen Pals suggest that Starfleet has the power to remove memories from biological life forms, the plot of Latent Image could not work as well with a character like Kim or Paris. At the same time, it is a broader allegory about how important memories and experiences are in terms of defining who a person is, and how dealing with these memories defines a cultural identity.

Latent Image is a powerful and clever piece of television.

The camera never lies.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Living Witness (Review)

Living Witness is a fantastic piece of television, and a great example of what Star Trek: Voyager does best.

Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise, but it is a story told well. Living Witness is one of the highlights of the fourth season, and one of the strongest episodes from the seven-season run.

Command and conquer.

In many ways, Living Witness is the culmination of themes and ideas that have been bubbling through Voyager from the outset. Some of these elements are less than flattering, with the episode’s racial politics evoking the clumsiness with which the Kazon were handled. However, there is also a fascination with idea of history and how history functions in a world rooted in postmodernism and recnstruction. At the end of history, is the past up for grabs? Are facts anything more than pieces to be manoeuvred on a political chessboard?

Given this archetypal quality of Living Witness, how it reflects the themes and pet interests of Voyager, there is some irony in the fact that the episode does not actually feature a single regular character from Voyager. The regular cast appear as holographic representations of themselves, exaggerations and distortions. When the EMH appears almost half-way through the episode, he is explicitly identified as “a back-up programme”, and thus distinct from the version of the EMH who will appear in Demon or One.

Core principles.

In some ways, Living Witness confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager, the fact that the characters are themselves largely irrelevant to the show and that the series is much more compelling as a framework to explore archetypal ideas. Living Witness is just one of several episodes that treat the regular characters as a secondary aspect of the show, almost as guest stars who have crossed over into a completely different series. Living Witness is very much of a piece with stories like Distant Origin or Course: Oblivion, or even Muse or Live Fast and Prosper.

Living Witness is a story about the thin line between history and mythology. In doing so, it consciously reframes Voyager as a story within a story, as concept more powerful as an archetype than as a material object. Living Witness images the ship and its crew as history elevated to mythology.

Any which Janeway but loose.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Real Life (Review)

Real Life is in some ways a departure for Star Trek: Voyager.

That much is obvious from the teaser, which introduces three new characters on a new set. More than that, the three characters comprise a nuclear family and the set is built to resemble the stereotypical American family home. It is a very strange image, even before the characters begin talking like they escaped from The Brady Bunch. In what might be the best teaser of the entire third season, it is revealed that the EMH has fashioned himself a holographic family and is “commuting” to work in sickbay from the holodeck.

Projections.

Projections.

It is certainly an interesting idea, one that consciously brushes up against the kinds of limitations and expectations that Voyager has faced. It feels experimental, quite removed from the broader third season attempts to position Voyager as the most generic of the Star Trek spin-offs. This does not look or feel like any other episode in the franchise’s history. Indeed, with its focus on family dynamics and conflict, it feels like an extension of Ronald D. Moore’s work on episodes like Family and Doctor Bashir, I Presume.

This makes the episode’s failure to follow through on any of that potential even more disappointing. The third season of Voyager has dramatically scaled down its ambition following the spectacular misfires of the second season. The show is no longer attempting to create long-form stories or introduce iconic new recurring alien species, instead setting more modest goals for itself. There is something disheartening in seeing Voyager set more modest challenges for itself in episodes like Macrocosm or Fair Trade, only to spectacularly bungle the handling of those challenges.

Family matters.

Family matters.

Real Life is another example of the trend. The premise is interesting, and the episode hits on any number of intriguing ideas. There is a great story to be told using this premise, exploring core themes about the human condition in a way that is quite different from the normal storytelling on Voyager. However, the episode flirts with the premise and then balks at it. Real Life is terrified of the implications of its story, padding out the plot with an unnecessary techno-babble-laden diversion and casually discarding the holographic family at the end of the script.

Real Life is an underwhelming story, rendered all the more disappointing for the promise that it squanders.

Photon father.

Photon father.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Darkling (Review)

There is something to be said for the pulpier side of Star Trek: Voyager, the aspect of the show that plays like a cheesy sci-fi b-movie.

Brannon Braga is very much the driving force behind this aspect of the show, as evidenced by his scripts for the belated Cold War body-swapping horror of Cathexis or the psychological nightmare of Projections or the trashy psychedelic terror of Cold Fire or even the weird evolutionary anxieties of Threshold and Macrocosm. These sorts of episodes often feel like they belong in a late night movie slot reserved for forgotten horror flicks from the fifties and sixties. Of course, Braga is not alone in this; episodes like Meld and The Thaw also fit the pattern.

Blurred lines.

Blurred lines.

Of course, these episodes do not always hit the mark. Charitably, it could be argued that they land about half the time and misfire spectacularly about one third of the time. However, there is something strangely compelling about these episode. They feel distinct from what audiences expect from Star Trek. Even if they are arguably just an extension of late Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes like Sub Rosa or Genesis or Eye of the Beholder, they feel like something different from the show’s more conventional “let’s do archetypal Star Trek” plotting.

Darkling is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but which is oddly endearing in its dysfunction. It is a ridiculous central premise executed in a deeply flawed (and occasionally uncomfortable) manner. However, there is something weirdly compelling about wedding the show’s science-fiction premise to gothic horror through the fractured psyche of a computer program.

Patchy.

Patchy.

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