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Star Trek: Voyager – Alliances (Review)

This September and October, 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.

One of the more persistent and convincing criticisms of Star Trek: Voyager is the idea that it was very narrative conservative; that the show got comfortable playing out the familiar formula that had been established by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and so never attempted to innovate or experiment in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or eventually Star Trek: Enterprise) did. This is a perfectly valid criticism of the show as a whole, but it does ignore some of the weird tensions that played out across the first two seasons.

It is fair to say that Voyager never truly experimented. However, there are several moments in the first two seasons where it looks like the show was considering doing something unique or unprecedented. The show walked up to the edge, looking up and down; it never quite made the leap, but it seemed to weigh the possibility of jumping headlong into uncharted territory. However, it ultimately only dipped its toes in the water before getting cold feet and returning to the comfort of the familiar.

"Everyone liked Godfather III, right?"

“Everyone liked Godfather III, right?”

The sad truth about the second season of Voyager is that the show made a number of attempts to do something different or unique, only to botch each and every one of those attempts so completely that the production team learned not to even try. The second season’s more adventurous creative decisions all ended in humiliation and farce, explaining why the show desperately sought the warm blanket of a familiar format and an established template. After all, it was the more conventional episodes of the second season that had been (relatively) well received.

The second season of Voyager turned the process of trying something moderately ambitious and failing spectacularly into something of an artform. Of course, given the simmering tensions behind the scenes, it often seemed like the show wanted to fail. Michael Piller desperately wanted to do new things, only to meet resistance from his fellow producers and writing staff. Writers like Kenneth Biller would publicly criticise assignments they had been handed, offering a sense of just how much faith the staff had in these ideas.

"You wouldn't like me when I'm angry..."

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…”

Alliances marks perhaps the most ambitious element (and most spectacular failure) of the second season of Voyager. It is the centrepiece of Michael Piller’s attempts to develop the Kazon into a credible (and convincing) alien threat, while also setting up a recurring arc that will allow Piller to push Tom Paris into the role of “lovable rogue” of which Piller was so fond. These were elements that excited Piller a great deal, but left most of the rest of the production team relatively cold.

So there is a great deal of irony in the fact that Alliances is ultimately written by Jeri Taylor, who was increasingly at loggerheads with Piller over the direction of Voyager. In light of that context, it makes sense that Alliances is an episode that aggressively critiques its own existence. Janeway spends most of the episode frustrated at the fact that the story is happening at all, and Alliances builds towards a climax that seems designed to convince the viewer that this whole idea is misconceived on just about every possible level.

Blooming disaster...

Blooming disaster…

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Non-Review Review: Triple 9

Triple 9 looks great.

Although it set in modern day Atlanta, director John Hillcoat seems to frame Triple 9 as a grim companion piece to The Road. Hillcoat captures the horrors of urban decay, creating a world that seems to teeter on the edge of the abyss. The camera pans through abandoned tenement buildings and lingers on graffiti; bodies are found in shopping trolleys while tinted windows serve to conceal immediate dangers. As filmed by Hillcoat and filtered through the lens of cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Atlanta seems to be composed of slums and overpasses.

Traffic stop...

Traffic stop…

From the impressive opening heist set piece, Hillcoat saturates the film with red, as if our heroes are only glimpsed through the light of hellfire. That red comes from multiple sources; a red dye pack that explodes at the worst possible moment, the boots worn by one of the characters, the lights from a police car, the fire from a distant (and somewhat anticlimactic) explosion. Triple 9 is oppressive and grim, with Hillcoat threatening to bring the world collapsing down upon his protagonists.

The problem with Triple 9 has nothing to do with Hillcoat’s aesthetic. Instead, the film suffers from a generic and unfocused script populated by characters who lack agency and identity. The main figures in Triple 9 often feel like pieces of paper caught in a breeze, moving in any given direction at the whim of the plot rather than through any essential quality of their own. Things happen not because they are organic (or even inevitable), but because they are convenient. There are points at which it seems like maybe the characters are not in hell; maybe the audience are.

Married to the mob...

Married to the mob…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Abandoned (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Abandoned is a problematic episode.

It’s brave and provocative and challenging, but it’s also incredibly grim and cynical. In fact, it is probably the most relentlessly pessimistic episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s third season. And, given the episodes surround it, that is quite an accomplishment. Deep Space Nine has subverted classic Star Trek storytelling before. The Maquis was really a watershed moment for the series, suggesting that paradise itself might be unsustainable – attacking Roddenberry’s utopia rather brutally.

However, The Abandoned pushes things even further. There’s a social and racial subtext to this episode that grounds it in the racial politics of Los Angeles in the mid-nineties. The story of a young angry drug-addicted killer can’t help but feel associated with the increased profile of Los Angeles’ gangland in the early-to-mid-nineties. Casting the episode’s young Jem’Hadar soldier using African American actors invites this comparison, something that director Avery Brooks himself has conceded.

The racial politics of The Abandoned are decidedly uncomfortable, but they are clearly meant to be. Still, there’s something rather cynical and pessimistic about the episode’s conclusion that this young boy cannot be saved from a life of brutality and violence.

A Jem?

A Jem?

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