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Star Trek: Voyager – One (Review)

One is a solid episode.

Indeed, One is so solid that it is the rare episode of Star Trek: Voyager to be repurposed for Star Trek: Enterprise. The prequel series tended to borrow stock Star Trek plots, but it tended to borrow most heavily from Star Trek: The Next Generation and even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; Oasis was Shadowplay, Vanishing Point was Realm of Fear, Dawn was Darmok. However, One would be reworked as Doctor’s Orders, another pseudo-horror bottle episode in which a member of the cast finds themselves driven insane by isolation.

Everything’s gone askew…

However, One has an in-built advantage over Doctor’s Orders, in that it is centred on a character who practically begs for this sort of treatment. Seven of Nine is effectively a reformed Borg drone. While Jean-Luc Picard was assimilated in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and recovered in The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, and while Chakotay brushed up against a pseudo-collective in Unity, Seven of Nine is the first franchise regular to have spent the bulk of her life inside the Borg Collective. The nature of the Borg means that Seven is perfectly suited to a story about isolation.

One is a messy and clumsy episode in a number of ways, particularly in its drive for big action set pieces and tangible threats. In particular, the penultimate act of One feels awkward, as if the production team do not trust the audience to engage with a purer breed of psychological thriller. However, One leans very heavily on the character of Seven of Nine and on the performance of Jeri Ryan. Luckily, both character and actor are up to the task.

Voices in her head.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Darkness and the Light (Review)

The Darkness and the Light is the first television credit for writer Bryan Fuller.

There is no way around that. It puts a lot of emphasis on this fifth season episode, drawing a lot attention to the story. Fuller didn’t even write the script, instead pitching a story that would be developed by Ronald D. Moore. However, later in the fifth season, Fuller would pitch the story for Empok Nor. After that, he would be recruited on to the writing staff on Star Trek: Voyager. Then Fuller would begin developing his own shows. Dead Like Me. Wonderfalls. Pushing Daisies. Hannibal. American Gods. Star Trek: Discovery.

Face-off.

Face-off.

That naturally casts a shadow over his first television pitch, the premise sold to the writing staff of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Even watching Fuller’s idea filtered through the lens of Ronald D. Moore, there is a strong urge to read too much into this forty-five-minute piece of television. How much of it represents Bryan Fuller’s vision of Star Trek? How have its themes and ideas resonated across the rest of the writer’s work? What insight might it offer into the producer’s vision for the future of the franchise?

A lesser episode would crumple under that weight. It helps that The Darkness and the Light is an ambitious and exciting piece of television, a triumph of concept and execution that stands as one of the most distinctive and memorable episodes in the fifty-year history of the franchise.

A time to heal.

A time to heal.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Thaw (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.

The Thaw is a visually striking piece of Star Trek.

The Thaw is among the most delightfully surreal and abstract episodes of Star Trek to be broadcast after October 1975. One of the more interesting aspects of Star Trek: Voyager is how consciously the show tries to return to the storytelling aesthetic of the original Star Trek show, at least in its early years. While the design aesthetics and characters might have been largely ported over from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first few seasons of Voyager frequently feel like a conscious attempt to update sixties Star Trek tropes for the nineties.

In darkness dwells...

In darkness dwells…

This is obvious in a number of ways. Caretaker consciously tried to evoke the old “space western” aesthetic, to the point of featuring a Native American first officer and introducing the Kazon as horribly racist “primitive” stereotypes. Time and Again relished primary colour costuming for their suspiciously human-like aliens. These themes became more prominent in the second season, with the b-movie aesthetic of Threshold, the space horror of Persistence of Vision and Meld, and the reverse aging allegory of Innocence.

While Tuvix essentially offers a reverse twist on The Enemy Within, it is The Thaw that feels most obviously like a sixties episode trapped in ember. The allegorical storytelling, the abstract set design, the creepy campy tone. Voyager might be half-way across the galaxy, but it is never too far from the familiar.

"We never bother to scream... ... when your mask came off."

“We never bother to scream…
… when your mask came off.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Paradise Lost (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.

Part of what is so remarkable about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is how prescient it seems.

The Star Trek franchise is renowned for its central metaphors and allegories, its fondness for addressing contemporary issues through abstract philosophical discussions. Even the most casual of television fans can point to episodes like Let That be Your Last Battlefield or A Private Little War as examples of the franchise’s engagement with contemporary social issues. (Of course, they may not be able to actually name those episodes.) Of course, the reality was always more complicated than that, but this social engagement is part of the popular memory of the franchise.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

While there is a tendency to overstate the importance of social commentary and engagement in the history of the Star Trek franchise, it is a massive part of the cultural behemoth. Although not every (and arguably not even most) Star Trek episodes are explorations of moral philosophy that apply to the contemporary world, they are an essential part of each and every Star Trek series. Sometimes these episodes are brilliant, and sometimes they are heavy-handed. Sometimes they are earnestly sincere, and sometimes they are hopelessly misguided.

However, Deep Space Nine stands out in comparison to its contemporaries. Even twenty years after the show aired, it seems like Deep Space Nine speaks to contemporary anxieties and uncertainties.

The Changeling Face of Evil...

The Changeling Face of Evil…

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The X-Files – X-Cops (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.

There is a very serious argument to be made that X-Cops represents the last point at which The X-Files truly pushed itself.

There are experimental episodes later in the run that play with new narrative forms and concepts. Improbable features a snazzy musical number; Lord of the Flies intersects with stunt-driven television shows; Sunshine Days has the characters enter The Brady Bunch. However, X-Cops represents the last time that The X-Files allows itself to be completely submerged in a high-concept idea, following the concept through to its logical conclusion in the spirit of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Bad Blood or Triangle.

xfiles-xcops17a

X-Cops features Mulder and Scully crossing over into an episode of Cops. However, the episode is told entirely from the perspective of the Cops production team, filmed and broadcast as if it were an episode of Fox’s long-running law enforcement reality television show. The camera becomes a performer in X-Cops, and at no point in the entire forty-five minutes does it “break character.” Barring the use of the X-Files opening credits sequence and superimposing the logo at commercials, X-Cops adopts the form and structure of Cops.

This is a boldly experimental piece of television; it is not the sort of episode that viewers expect from a show in its seventh season. This is a giddy and goofy concept more akin to enthusiastic student filmmaking than an established television institution. After Sein und Zeit and Closure suggested that The X-Files was winding down, X-Cops proves that there’s life in the old show yet. Sadly, this feels like something of a last gasp; there would never be quite as much life in The X-Files after this point.

xfiles-xcops2a

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Impulse (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.

Impulse is a Star Trek zombie story.

It might sound absurd, but it works very well. After all, the Star Trek franchise rooted in pulp space horror, with extended stretches of the original show portraying space as haunted. In some ways, Impulse could be seen as a logical extension of Regeneration from late in the second season. Both episodes are very much modelled on the classic zombie horror movie formula, both deal with how traditional Star Trek morality applies to that formula, and both are even directed by veteran Star Trek producer David Livingston, who brings a nice kinetic feel to the adventures.

Dead space...

Dead space…

Impulse works a lot better than it really should. There are some plotting issues created by the secondary storyline grafted into the episode, and the show doesn’t quite develop its Vulcan themes as well as it might. However, it compensates for these issues with an incredible sense of energy and momentum. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise might be the first season of Star Trek to be seriously facing cancellation in decades, but it had an entirely new lease on life.

Impulse is a bold and exciting piece of television, one that feel vital and urgent. It recaptures some of the appeal of the new status quo that had been somewhat squandered by Extinction and Rajiin.

Reed shirt...

Reed shirt…

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The X-Files – Arcadia (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Arcadia was originally produced directly after Two Fathers and One Son. It was moved later in the broadcast cycle because it needed more post-production work than Agua Mala or Monday. Looking at the finished product, one suspects that the garbage monster posed no shortage of problems for the production team. Whatever the reason, Arcadia was shifted down two slots in the broadcast order. This is a shame on multiple levels. Most obviously, “Mulder and Scully go undercover as a suburban couple” would have been a great sweeps episode.

More than that, though, there is something delightfully subversive in the idea that Arcadia is the first case that Mulder and Scully are assigned after reclaiming their iconic basement office at the end of One Son. The decision to reassign Mulder and Scully to the X-files would seem to promised a return to the status quo after a weird stretch earlier in the season (from Triangle to The Rain King) where The X-Files turned into a weird paranormal romantic comedy. Fan reaction to this stretch of the show was (and still is) polarised.

So happy together...

So happy together…

However, instead of reassuring those fans wanting a return to more traditional X-Files aesthetic, Arcadia reasserts the “quirky domestic comedy” tone of shows like Dreamland I, Dreamland II or How the Ghosts Stole Christmas. In fact, it’s telling how completely disinterested Arcadia is in the fact that Mulder and Scully are back on the X-files for the first time since the end of the fifth season. There’s a quick exchange referencing their reassignment, but no examination of the fallout of One Son. There is not even a single scene set in the familiar basement set.

As such, Arcadia seems quite cheeky. It celebrates the return to the show’s classic status quo by ignoring it almost completely. Arcadia is a silly little relationship comedy that could easily have aired in the first stretch of the season, its positioning here feeling like a playful tease of those fans clamouring for the return of a classical approach to the series. Unfortunately, a lot of that gets lost in the shuffling of the episode around in the broadcast schedule. Using Agua Mala and Monday to insulate Arcadia from Two Fathers and One Son undercuts its cheeky charm.

There goes the neighbourhood...

There goes the neighbourhood…

The post-production delay on Arcadia hurts the episode. Instead of a cheeky tweaking of fandom’s nose, Arcadia becomes a fairly middling mid to late season instalment. It is not as limp and lifeless as Agua Mala or Alpha, but not as insightful and fun as Monday. In fact, while Arcadia contains a few chuckles, the episode lacks the charm of something like Triangle or How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (or even The Rain King). Arcadia feels like it takes the cheesy teasing of a Mulder/Scully relationship just a little too far.

In many ways, The Rain King represented the point at which the show should have pressed forward with a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully; regardless of whether the viewer is a shipper or a noromo, the teasing had reached critical mass, and it was time to commit one way or another. Arcadia instead insists that the show remains decidedly noncommittal, trying to have the best of all possible worlds. There comes a point where the show feels like it is just “trolling.”

"Well, this is easy enough..."

“Well, this is easy enough…”

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