• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

New Escapist Column! On Uncanny Valley of “The Witcher” Between Prestige and Tradition…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine the week before last, looking at the Netflix streaming show The Witcher.

There are a lot of interesting things about the eight episode introductory season of The Witcher, which is adapted from two books of short stories and which seems to exist largely to set the table for more impressive seasons to follow. However, what is most immediately striking about The Witcher is the way in which it exists in the uncanny valley between modern prestige television and a more traditional model of episodic storytelling, looking like a hybrid of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Game of Thrones. To be clear, this is not a bad thing.

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

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.

Continue reading

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – It’s Only a Paper Moon (Review)

It’s Only a Paper Moon is a fantastic illustration of a lot of things that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does consistently well.

It is an episode that builds off events depicted in an earlier story, picking up with the character of Nog following the loss of his leg in The Siege of AR-558. In many ways, It’s Only a Paper Moon feels like a necessary part of that earlier adventure, dealing with the consequences of something truly horrific. It would have been cheap and crass to gloss over the enormity of what had happened to Nog. In The Siege of AR-558, the loss of Nog’s leg was a minor detail; one of many reminders of how war is hell. It’s Only a Paper Moon allows that story to play out in more depth.

“I’ll be seeing you…”

It’s Only a Paper Moon is also an episode that feels quite removed from what audiences expect from a Star Trek episode. The central story focuses on two supporting characters who exist outside the regular cast, trusting Nog and Vic Fontaine to carry a story on their own terms. It is a testament to how well-developed the world of Deep Space Nine has become, recalling the focus on Martok in Soldiers of the Empire or Once More Unto the Breach, Dukat in Indiscretion or Return to Grace and Garak in The Wire or Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast.

Unfolding primarily in a holographic recreation of sixties Las Vegas, It’s Only a Paper Moon is a very surreal and unusual episode of Deep Space Nine. However, it works perfectly in the context of Deep Space Nine.

A hard day’s Nog.

Continue reading

Star Trek: Voyager – Tuvix (Review)

This February and March (and a little bit of April), 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 for the latest review.

Tuvix is a controversial piece of Star Trek.

The episode tends to polarise fandom. In particular, the climax of the episode seems to divide fans firmly down the middle. When the fan site Trek Today marked the end of Star Trek: Voyager by staging a mock “Court Martial of Captain Kathryn Janeway”, it was argued that the events of Tuvix should have been included as evidence against her. It is no surprise that the episode generated such a strong response. Discussing the production of the episode, Tom Wright reflected, “The truth is that the higher ups of Star Trek knew that this would cause some controversy.”

"Neevok was never gonna cut it."

“Neevok was never gonna cut it.”

Of course it generates some controversy. This is the episode where Janeway elects to murder one crew member in order to resurrect two lost crew members. This is a story about how the title character is convenient for about forty-five minutes of screentime, only for the crew to quickly dispose of him as soon as the end credits beacon. Tuvix never really makes a convincing moral case for why the eponymous character has to die, beyond the fact that it conveniently resets the status quo.

Then again, perhaps that is reason enough.

Two for the price of one...

Two for the price of one…

Continue reading

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Hippocratic Oath (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.

Hippocratic Oath represents a return to normality for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Way of the Warrior was a feature-length war epic tasked with introducing a new regular character and a new status quo, while The Visitor was an intimate character study that stood quite apart from the show around it. With Hippocratic Oath, the show gets back to business as usual. It even has a classic a-story/b-story split with Bashir and O’Brien’s Gamma Quadrant hijinx juxtaposed with Worf learning his place on the station (and the show).

This is not to suggest that Hippocratic Oath is a bland hour of Star Trek. Indeed, it is a tightly-constructed story that hits on some of the show’s core themes and most interesting dynamics. One of the problems with the third season of Deep Space Nine was the fact that it had a strong start but no idea on how to build from that. Hippocratic Oath seems to serve very much as a “business as usual” episode of the fourth season, helping to set a baseline of quality of the show going forward.

Awkward bromantic moment...

Awkward bromantic moment…

Continue reading

Jessica Jones – AKA 99 Friends (Review)

Jessica Jones has always been more interested in the style and aesthetic of noir than in its storytelling.

The show’s visual aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities hark to noir. Jessica Jones is a cynical hard-drinking private investigator, who routinely works cases involving cheating spouses. She narrates her harsh reflections of life as she studies the world through the lens of a camera. Meanwhile, sad saxophones play in the background of lonely establishing shots of New York as the city that never sleeps, while our hero works alone late into the night seemingly accomplishing nothing. That is to say nothing of the actual opening sequence, with its impressionistic flair.

jessicajones-99friends11a

While Jessica Jones borrows a lot of the stock archetypes and set-ups associated with noir, its storytelling is more of a hybrid between conventional superhero drama and feminist psychological thriller. The problem is that Jessica Jones never actually feels comfortable with its main character’s profession. Despite the fact that Jessica Jones is a licensed private detective, the eponymous character spends precious little time actually detecting stuff. Jessica’s investigations are generally in pursuit of Kilgrave, with her profession treated as a background detail.

AKA 99 Friends demonstrates how uncomfortable Jessica Jones is with this aspect of its title character. Over the course of the show’s thirteen-episode run, AKA 99 Friends is the closest that the show comes to offering a straightforward “case of the week” episode. Unfortunately, it is pretty terrible.

jessicajones-99friendsa

Continue reading

The X-Files – Three Words (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

There is no “to be continued…” explicitly linking DeadAlive to Three Words, but there doesn’t have to be.

In this final stretch of the eighth season, The X-Files adapts a somewhat serialised narrative model. Although stories like Empedocles and Vienen technically serve as “monster of the week” stories that stand alone, they feel very particular to this moment in the show’s history. Mulder’s return to the land of the living in DeadAlive does not mark a return to the status quo, despite his best efforts. Instead, it creates a highly volatile (and, by its nature, transitory) set-up that cannot be maintained over an extended period.

Howard Salt was willing to go to any lengths to return the President's copy of The X-Files film.

Howard Salt was willing to go to any lengths to return the President’s copy of The X-Files film.

This is not a sustainable status quo. This is not “business as usual.” This is not what the ninth season will look like. This is not like those other changes to the status quo that occurred at the start of the second and sixth seasons, when Mulder and Scully were taken off the X-files but continued to investigate cases that were X-files in all but name. Episodes like Blood or How the Ghosts Stole Christmas could be transitioned into a regular season order with a minimum of changes, but these episodes all feel uniquely tailored to this point in the show’s history.

As such, the end of the eighth season takes on a loosely serialised quality, and not just in the story of the new mythology or the so-called “super soldiers.” The character dynamics evolve and grow, with the individual episodes seeding character development leading the season finalé. Episodes like Three Words and Vienen make it increasingly clear that Mulder is not back in an permanent sense by first pushing him away from the X-files and then firing him from the FBI. Scully’s pregnancy is actually allowed to progress at this point in the season.

He's back!

He’s back!

This serialisation is apparent in the discrepancies between the production and broadcast order. As with extended sections of the fourth season, the final stretch of the eighth season was produced in a different order than it was broadcast. Unlike the fourth season, however, this shift does not create any dissonance as significant as the conflict between the version of Never Again that was filmed and the one that was broadcast. Despite being produced in a different order, these stories could not work in any order other than the broadcast order.

Although The X-Files frequently gets credit for pioneering and popularising (or, at the very least, re-popularising) serialised narratives on prime-time television, the final stretch of the eighth season is perhaps the serialised stretch of the entire nine-year run.

A touching reunion...

A touching reunion…

Continue reading

Harsh Realm – Kein Ausgang (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

So, what does an average episode of Harsh Realm look like?

After all, the show was cancelled after only three episodes had been broadcast. Those three episodes were all written by the creator, and formed something of a loose introduction to the show. Inga Fossa ended with our protagonist finally accepting his place in the virtual world and his mission to defeat General Omar Santiago before the dictator can destroy the real world. There is a sense that the show had yet to even demonstrate what a regular episode of Harsh Realm might look like. It was over before it had even begun.

Jumping into action...

Jumping into action…

Kein Ausgang is the first episode of Harsh Realm to be written by somebody other than Chris Carter. As such, it is an important milestone in the development of the series. It is also the first of two episodes written by Steven Maeda, who would prove to be a pretty reliable set of hands in the life of the young show. Based on his contributions to Harsh Realm, it is easy to see why Carter drafted Maeda over to The X-Files in the wake of Harsh Realm‘s cancellation, even if his contributions to that show were a little more uneven.

Kein Ausgang offers an interesting glimpse of what Harsh Realm might have looked like going forward, if Fox had waited more than three episodes to cancel the show.

Shining a light on it...

Shining a light on it…

Continue reading

Star Trek: Enterprise – Damage (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.

The stock comparison for Damage is In the Pale Moonlight.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, both are Star Trek episodes that hinge on a series of morally questionable decisions made by the lead actor in a moment of sheer desperation. In In the Pale Moonlight, Benjamin Sisko starts a chain of events that builds towards the assassination of a Romulan Senator to trick the Romulans into joining the war effort. In Damage, Jonathan Archer resorts to piracy in order to obtain the parts necessary to make a meeting with Degra in order to plead against the use of the Xindi weapon.

A met a man who wasn't there...

A met a man who wasn’t there…

There are some notable differences, of course. In purely practical plotting terms, Sisko dominates the narrative of In the Pale Moonlight; the entire story is related directly by Sisko to the audience in the form of a personal log. In contrast, Damage is split between the demands of Archer’s own arc in the episode and various other continuity elements; the episode needs to get Archer back to his ship and devote a considerable amount of time to T’Pol’s addiction. As a result, it lacks the keen focus that made In the Pale Moonlight so compelling.

At the same time, there is something much more direct about Damage. Sisko is quite detached from the horrors of In the Pale Moonlight, with the audience insulated from his choices through the use of a framing device and Sisko himself insulated through his use of Garak to conduct all the unpalatable actions. In contrast, Archer makes a point to bloody his own hands over the course of Damage. He doesn’t have somebody else to make the decision for him; he leads the boarding party himself.

Everything comes apart...

Everything comes apart…

It is a very bold an unsettling choice, a culmination of a character arc that has been pushing Archer towards this sort of horrific choice since Anomaly. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise has not been entirely consistent when it comes to its character arcs, working better in broad strokes than in fine detail. Nevertheless, Damage represents a very clear commitment to the promise of the third season of Enterprise; an interrogation of the franchise’s core values in an increasingly morally ambiguous world.

Damage is a deeply uncomfortable and unsettling episode of Star Trek, but it is arguably a necessary one. It is, in many ways, a criticism of the moral absolutism that informs a lot of discussion about terrible situations, suggesting that reality is often a lot more complicated than people might hope it would be.

Drowning his sorrows...

Drowning his sorrows…

Continue reading

Star Trek: Enterprise – Season 2 (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.

The second season of Star Trek: Enterprise is a strange beast, breaking down into roughly three sections.

The first section runs from Shockwave, Part II through to A Night in Sickbay. There is a nice energy to these episodes, with the first appearance of the Romulans in Minefield and nice internal continuity between otherwise stand-alone adventures like Minefield and Dead Stop. Carbon Creek is a fun diversion and A Night in Sickbay at least tries to do something novel and exciting – even if the show can’t quite pull it off. This stretch of the season feels like an organic development from the first season, a collection of episodes of variable quality; balancing the desire to try new things with nods to the franchise’s strengths.

ent-theexpanse9

The final stretch runs from Judgment to The Expanse. The third season looms large over these episodes, with a sense of impending change in the air. These episodes seem to bid farewell to a version of Star Trek that has existed since the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Judgment gives the Klingons one last epic story, Regeneration checks in on the Borg. The Breach offers a traditional Star Trek morality play, while Cogenitor brutally subverts it. Even episodes like Horizon and First Flight call back to the earliest episodes of Enterprise, as if to offer one last reflection on what might have been.

However, the second season is dominated by a long middle stretch – episodes running from Marauders through to The Crossing. While episodes like Future Tense provide an occasional reprieve, this middle stretch of the season is workmanlike and functional. This is the first two seasons of Enterprise as they are often dismissed: a lite version of Star Trek: Voyager in the same way that Star Trek: Voyager is a lite version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that long and dull middle stretch, it feels like the writing staff might as well be blowing dust off of scripts written for the seventh season of The Next Generation.

ent-shockwavepart2o

Unfortunately, while the first and third sections of the season have a lot to recommend them, it is the middle stretch that sets the mood for the season. The second season of Enterprise has more than a couple genuine stinkers – Precious Cargo, The Crossing and Bounty come to mind – but the season never hits the sustained lows of the third season of Star Trek, the first and second seasons of The Next Generation or the second season of Voyager. However, there is long string of episodes that are just dull and uninspired; formulaic and familiar.

In that extended run in the middle of the season, there are episodes that can be easily reduced to “[earlier episode or pop culture reference] by way of [earlier episode or pop culture reference]” without missing anything much. Marauders is The Magnificent Seven by way of Star Trek”, The Communicator is A Piece of the Action by way of First Contact”, Singularity is “Bliss by the way of The Game”, Vanishing Point is “Realm of Fear by way of Remember Me”, Precious Cargo is “Elaan of Troyius by way of The Perfect Mate”, Dawn is The Enemy by way of Darmok.” And so on.

ent-futuretense16

The result is a second season that is exhausting and draining. Watching it on original broadcast was a disheartening experience; each week seemed to bring more of the same. The long stretch from the end of October to the start of April was unforgiving; each week seemed to offer more evidence that Star Trek was tired and played out, a franchise disengaged from not only the world around it but also from the changing rules of its own medium. Coupled with the spectacular (but entirely foreseeable) failure of Star Trek: Nemesis, the second season of Enterprise seemed to seal the franchise’s fate.

There is a very real tragedy to all this. For all that the tail end of the second season sees a massive up-swing in quality and energy, it is perhaps too little and too late. By the time that Judgment had begun a late-season revitalisation, Rick Berman had already announced a bold new direction for the third season. That last stretch is a lame duck. In a way, the second season of Enterprise plays like a microcosm of the series itself; a dramatic upswing in quality and ambition at a point where fate has already made its decision.

ent-cogenitor

Continue reading