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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact caps off the thirtieth anniversary celebrations with one eye to the past and one eye to the future.

The second film to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation is surprisingly nostalgic in places. The script makes several rather blatant nods towards Star Trek II: The Wrath of the Khan, perhaps the consensus pick for the best Star Trek feature film. It marks the return of a memorable antagonist from the parent series, serving as a direct sequel to a particular episode and pitting the lead character in a battle of wills against an old opponent. More than that, it builds upon a rich tradition of the franchise riffing upon Moby Dick.

"This scene is going to seem really ironic when they launch Star Trek: Enterprise."

“This scene is going to seem really ironic when they launch Star Trek: Enterprise.”

However, there are other major influences. Most notably, the film leans quite heavily upon Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In both films, the Enterprise crew film themselves sent back in time to save Earth from an alien threat, resulting in comedic misadventures as the characters interact with a supporting cast native to this time period. Most analysis of First Contact tends to focus on The Wrath of Khan parallels, as they dominate the primarily plot. Nevertheless, the secondary plot draws heavily from The Voyage Home.

More than that, the feature film draws heavily upon the existing Star Trek mythos. The movie is a direct sequel to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, recognising that two-parter as the moment that The Next Generation truly came into its own and stepped out from under the shadow of the original Star Trek series. Even beyond that acknowledgement of franchise history, First Contact does not take the crew back in time to the present day or a historical event. It takes the crew back to the point at which the future of Star Trek truly begins.

"Mister Worf, I'll be damned if I'm going to let Star Trek: Deep Space Nine out-badass me."

“Mister Worf, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Star Trek: Deep Space Nine out-badass me.”

Still, while the movie is constructed as a definite celebration of the past, it also serves to define the future of the franchise. The template for the remaining Rick Berman years can be found in this feature film. The success of the action and adventure beats in this instalment undoubtedly informed the emphasis on such elements in Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. The final two films in this particular iteration of the franchise owe a lot more to this particular film than to Star Trek: Generations.

Even more, the impact of the film reached well beyond this set of characters. The other three television series were all heavily shaped and defined by this particular feature film. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine inherited a lot of the look and feel of this film, with the crew swapping out into these grey uniforms with Rapture. The Dominion War would use a lot of the ships designed for the combat sequence towards the opening of the scene. Some of the other production design also bled in, including the space suits in Empok Nor.

No time like the past.

No time like the past.

Star Trek: Voyager would inherit some of that production design as well, including the space suits in episodes like Day of Honour or Demon. However, the film’s biggest impact on that particular series was the renovation of the Borg. Brannon Braga would seize upon the idea of the Borg as a recurring threat, setting them up in episodes like Blood Fever and Unity mere months after the release of the film. The Borg would serve as the basis of the big third and fourth season two-parter, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. Alice Krige would appear in Endgame.

In its own way, this film also signals the end of the Berman era. The arrival of the Vulcan ship in the closing minutes serves to set up the premise of Star Trek: Enterprise. James Cromwell would make the torch-passing cameo in Broken Bow, reprising his role as Zefram Cochrane. The idea of doing a prequel television series that charted the origin of the franchise feels very much rooted in the (critical and commercial) success of this iteration of the film franchise.

"Captain, when the Borg promised you a pound of flesh, it turns out that they meant it literally."

“Captain, when the Borg promised you a pound of flesh, it turns out that they meant it literally.”

On the audio commentary, writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore speak of the thirtieth anniversary as “the peak” of the franchise. After all, it seemed like the celebrations would last forever. First Contact was just one small part of a whole season of television that marked the best that the franchise had to offer. There was a wide selection of material, including episodes like Trials and Tribble-ationsFlashbackFuture’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. Following all of those, First Contact was really just the cherry on top of a very delicious cake.

However, the issue with First Contact as “the peak” is quite simple. From this vantage point, the audience can survey the entire Berman era. First Contact is positioned so that the audience can see the metaphorical beginnings of the Star Trek franchise, but also the makings of the end of this particular iteration. From the peak, there is only one direction.

"Just checked Rotten Tomatoes there. Still the best in the series. Don't make me put on Nemesis, Mister Worf."

“Just checked Rotten Tomatoes there. Still the best in the series. Don’t make me put on Nemesis, Mister Worf.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Daedalus (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.

Discussions of the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise tend to focus on the multi-part episodes.

That makes a great deal of sense. After all, no Star Trek show had ever built a season around a collection of multi-part arcs. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had embraced serialisation in the second half of its run and Star Trek: Voyager had embraced an aesthetic that supported two-part “event” episodes, there had never been a season of the franchise constructed around a string of two- or three-part adventures. Even the third season of Enterprise had really been on long form story with the occasional episodic diversion.

Padding it out.

Padding it out.

These multi-part stories dominate the fourth season. Of the twenty-two episodes of the fourth season, seventeen are part of seven multi-part stories. Of the five episodes that nominally stand alone, Home is very much a thematic introduction to the season that sets up all manner of ideas to pay off later in the run and These Are the Voyages… is effectively an attempt at a coda for the eighteen years (and twenty-five television seasons) of the Berman era as a whole. Discounting these two “bookends”, that leaves only three standalone episodes.

Two of those episodes, Daedalus and Observer Effect aired back to back in the middle of the season. However, although each episode is self-contained in terms of plot, they do feel like spiritual companion pieces.

Turn the lights off on the way out...

Turn the lights off on the way 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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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Communicator (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.

One of the biggest problems with positioning Star Trek: Enterprise as a prequel is that the original Star Trek was very much a product of its time. It is very difficult to line-up a television show broadcast in the early years of the twenty-first century with a series that was produced towards the end of the sixties. It is a completely different world, and so the show itself must inevitably be completely different.

This reflects itself in the production design of Enterprise. One of the more frequent fan complaints about the series concerns the design of the new ship. After all, it doesn’t look like anything Matt Jefferies would design. If anything, it looks like the missing link between a modern submarine and the Defiant from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. All the pastels and mood lighting have been replaced with functional grey and buttresses. Kirk’s Enterprise and Archer’s Enterprise speak to two different aesthetics.

"What we've got here is failure to communicate..."

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…”

Of course, it is possible to land a little closer to the classic design as Scott Chambliss demonstrated with his work on JJ Abrams’ reboot. Then again, this only reinforces the point. The general mood and tone of design when Star Trek hit cinema screens in 2009 was markedly different from the mood and tone of design when Broken Bow first aired in 2001. It just so happened that one was more compatible with Jefferies’ original vision than the other. (And even then, Chambliss’ update is markedly different.)

However, while the design of the ship itself is a handy indicator of just how difficult it is to line up a show produced in the first decade of a new millennium to a show produced before man walked on the moon, there are more substantial cultural and social differences at play. The Communicator is another second season Star Trek mash-up, this time taking the ending of A Piece of the Action and offering a perfect example of how Enterprise could never be an entirely comfortable companion to classic Star Trek.

"Westmore's not gonna like this..."

“Westmore’s not gonna like this…”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Carbon Creek (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.

Although it was the second episode of the season broadcast, Carbon Creek was the first episode of the second season produced.

There are a variety of reasons for this. The fact that it only featured three primary cast members would have meant that everybody else got a little extra vacation time. With a lot of location shooting and a production design outside the Star Trek norm, it likely made sense to get it out of the way first. From a budgeting and production standpoint, the show likely benefited from a bit more time than episodes like Shockwave, Part II or Minefield.

"We come in peace...

“We come in peace…”

However, even outside of these pragmatic production concerns, Carbon Creek helps to set the tone for the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise. It is a largely nostalgic and romantic exercise, a rather light stand-alone episode that feels like it wallows in the iconography and conventions of Star Trek. Indeed, the teleplay is credited to Chris Black, the only new writer to survive the writing staff departures that Mike Sussman jokingly referred to as “purges.”

Black is in many respects the first “native” Enterprise writer – the first writer to last more than a season who had not worked on Star Trek: Voyager. As such, it seems only appropriate that he should set the tone for the season ahead.

Vulcan hustle...

Vulcan hustle…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Sleeping Dogs (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 January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

There’s really very little to say about Sleeping Dogs. It’s not particularly good, it’s not particularly bad. Like Civilisation before it, it’s an episode of Star Trek constructed to a familiar formula. The ship in question answers a distress call from an alien ship. Our crew attempts a rescue mission, during which the away team end up stranded. Meanwhile, our captain tries to figure out how to communicate with an alien from a radically different culture, eventually coming to realise that he must address them on their terms.

These are all stock elements, and they are mixed into Sleeping Dogs with a minimum of fuss. The only real kink in Sleeping Dogs is that the aliens in question are Klingons. However, we’ve spent so much time with Klingons in the various other Star Trek spin-off shows that using them as a light seasoning in a fairly stock Star Trek plot doesn’t make for a particularly appetising combination.

Again with the Klingons...

Again with the Klingons…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Civilisation (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 January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

After Breaking the Ice hinted at what Star Trek: Enterprise might become, Civilisation is an episode that nudges the show right back into its comfort zone. It’s an episode of Star Trek that feels like it could have been produced for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager, with only a minimum amount of change to the script. However, what is strangest about Civilisation is the way that it feels like a rather direct throwback to the very classic Star Trek show, serving as a tale about our hot-blooded captain fighting evil imperialist adversaries and seducing sexy alien space babes.

Of course, there’s a sense that this sense of regression is exactly what the show is aspiring towards. After all, Archer was advertised as “Captain Kirk’s childhood hero”, and it makes sense for the show to play with the classic Star Trek tropes that are regarded so affectionately by popular culture. Unfortunately, Civilisation lacks the spark and wit necessary to make such a pulpy homage work, instead feeling too much like a dull retread.

David Ickes was right!

David Icke was right!

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