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Star Trek: Voyager – 11:59 (Review)

The thing about experiments is that they don’t always work, but that doesn’t mean they should never be attempted.

Much like Someone to Watch Over Me, 11:59 represents a new departure for Star Trek: Voyager. It is an episode unlike any other episode in the run of series, unfolding primarily on early twenty-first (or, as one character wryly points out, maybe late twentieth) century Earth. As with Someone to Watch Over Me, there is a sense that 11:59‘s closest spiritual companion is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There are any number of superficial similarities between 11:59 and Far Beyond the Stars, another time-travel-to-close-to-modern-day-Earth-episode-without-the-time-travel.

Countdown.

Sadly, the experiment does not quite work out. Someone to Watch Over Me is one of the most charming episodes in the seven-season run of Voyager, while 11:59 is more than a little dull. Far Beyond the Stars is one of the most powerful and evocative episodes of Star Trek ever produced, while 11:59 is a competent piece of television that is almost immediately dated. For all that 11:59 represents a bold departure for Voyager, there is a sense that the episode has very little to actually say. It exists, but it never seems to exist for a particular reason. 11:59 is a frustrating piece of television.

However, none of this matters too much. Voyager has been such a safe and conservative show that any creative risk feels worthwhile, that any departure from the established template feels worth of celebration on those terms alone. 11:59 is an unsuccessful experiment, but it is an experiment nonetheless. For a series as risk-adverse as Voyager, that is remarkable.

“Time’s up.”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – ‘Til Death Do Us Part (Review)

Perhaps more than any other Star Trek show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is an epic.

Sure, Star Trek: Voyager has more than a few characteristics of epic storytelling; it is a mythic journey, much like The Odyssey and The Iliad before it. In fact, several episodes of Voyager borrow quite heavily from those earliest of stories, with Favourite Son feature a planet for of sirens and Bliss finding the crew confronted with the deep space equivalent of lotus eaters. However, the storytelling on Voyager was always too small and too episodic to embrace the potential for a sprawling galactic epic.

Wedded bliss.

In contrast Deep Space Nine is a story with a lot of breadth. Of course, there are any number of isolated and standalone episodes within the seven-year run of Deep Space Nine, but there is also a strong sense that these one-hundred-and-seventy-plus episodes of television can be taken together and fashioned into a single cohesive narrative that runs from Emissary through to What You Leave Behind. There are undoubtedly bumps and inconsistencies along the way, strange shifts in direction and sharp left turns, but the series hangs together relatively well as a single narrative.

This is particularly true when it comes to the final ten episode of the series, which are very much intended to draw down the curtain on seven years of storytelling, while reinforcing the sense that this has truly been an epic narrative.

Feels like coming home…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dark Frontier, Part I (Review)

The fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager arrives at a point when the Rick Berman era of the Star Trek franchise has hit its midlife crisis.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is coming to an end, bring down the curtain on a seven-year period where there were always two franchise series boldly going simultaneously. Star Trek: Insurrection had been released into cinemas as a snapshot of that midlife crisis, where Michael Piller’s last script for the franchise found the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation desperately chasing their own youth and vitality on a planet with a fountain of youth.

Seven gets back in touch with her roots.

On the fifth season of Voyager, it seemed like the show turned inwards. The scripts for the fifth season are surprisingly retro and nostalgic in tone; Janeway’s reflections on the events of Caretaker in Night, the return of the Maquis and the Cardassians in Nothing Human, the indulgence of retro thirties sci-fi in Bride of Chaotica!, Tuvok’s childhood flashbacks in Gravity, the “telepathic pitcher plant” in Bliss, Seven’s trip back to the launch of Voyager in Relativity, Janeway’s investigation of her ancestor in 11:59.

However, there was a fundamental problem with all of this introspection. Voyager was a television series that had long struggled to define a unique identity, too often feeling like a half-hearted reheat of the leftovers from The Next Generation. It was very hard to turn the focus inwards when there wasn’t a lot unique or distinctive about Voyager. This is a show that was much closer to its end than to its beginning, and it still lacked any true sense of identity or self.

There’s coffee… I mean transwarp coils in that there Borg Sphere.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II serve as an example of this nostalgic indulgence, both in form and plot. It is a two-parter consciously designed to recapture the success of broadcasting The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II on the same night in the late fourth season. It is also a television movie that is very clearly patterned off the story for Star Trek: First Contact, borrowing key story beats and clear characters from that memorable Next Generation film.

However, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II also demonstrate the shallowness of Voyager‘s own internal memory. This is a story built around an act of narrative archeology within the larger Star Trek universe, touching on the secret history of humanity’s true first encounter of the Borg. However, that history is ultimately illusory, built around what feels like a misremembrance of one of the franchise’s most iconic alien species. As Voyager turns its gaze backwards, it discovers that it has no real history.

Drone warfare.

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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: 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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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) #1-5 – Believers (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Five years can be a long time.

To be fair, there was a six-year gap between the broadcast of The Truth and the release of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, so the gap was not unprecedented. Nevertheless, the fact is that Mulder and Scully had been retired for five years since their last film and eleven years since their last television episodes. Even the most hardcore fans of The X-Files had begun to doubt that the show would ever return in any tangible form. However, the show was entering its twentieth anniversary year, and forces were stirring in the background.

X-appeal.

X-appeal.

Occasionally interviews would surface with David Duchovny or Gillian Anderson mooting the possibility of doing a third feature film. After all, despite the promise made in the opening of The Truth, 2012 had come and gone without an alien invasion or a global apocalypse. The franchise had set its own alarm clock and slept through it. There were still fitful stirrings, suggestions of possible future developments. As the franchise passed what many regarded as its “best before” date, Frank Spotnitz even speculated that fans might be treated to a reboot.

In many ways, the revival of The X-Files began somewhat innocuously. In January 2013, comics publisher IDW announced that they would be publishing a monthly series focusing on the continuing adventures of Mulder and Scully. This was not necessarily news of itself. IDW had a long history of managing licensed properties, such as the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot and the Russell T. Davies Doctor Who relaunch. That was very much their market niche in the comic book industry, especially with nostalgic titles like Ghostbusters or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

How the years 'shroom by...

How the years ‘shroom by…

While the launch of the title did suggest that there was an audience for stories featuring Mulder and Scully, it did not necessarily lead to the promise of greater things. Indeed, the announcement that IDW would be publishing The X-Files: Season 10 consciously and clearly evoked the approach that the publisher Dark Horse had adopted towards Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel, running entire seasons of comic book stories that served as the new “canon” for the characters. But nobody was expecting Sarah Michelle Gellar to reprise the role of Buffy Summers.

However, the IDW comic book launch served to bring Chris Carter out of semi-retirement and back into the media spotlight. Joss Whedon had consulted with Dark Horse on Buffy: Season Eight, the prolific television writer and producer was also working on his own concurrent projects that included directing episodes of The Office and preparing Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. In contrast, Chris Carter had been largely silent since the release of I Want to Believe. The launch of the comic book brought him back.

Where there's smoke...

Where there’s smoke…

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Grant Morrison’s Run on Action Comics (Review/Retrospective)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

On paper, Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’ Action Comics should have been a slam dunk.

The title was announced as part of DC’s “new 52” relaunch, a resetting of the comic book giant’s continuity beginning in September 2011. Designed to revitalise the line, shoring up sales numbers and providing a clear point of entry, the “new 52” was clearly intended as a “jumping on” point for new and lapsed comic fans. It was bold and radical, an even greater departure for the company than their reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1986. The comic book publisher gave themselves a blank slate.

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive...!

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive…!

In theory, this was a great idea; anything was possible and everything was on the table. In practice, the execution was more muddled; the massive experiment curtailed by a very conservative aesthetic. In many respects, the “new 52” felt like more of the same; familiar mid-tier talent working on familiar mid-tier ideas. The most interesting books were those that dared to do things differently; Scott Snyder inverting Alan Moore’s brilliant twist on Swamp Thing made for iconoclastic reading, as did Brian Azzarello’s ground-up reimagining of Wonder Woman.

In contrast, a lot of the line felt like hedging. Hellblazer was cancelled so that John Constantine could be dragged under the corporate umbrella in Justice League Dark, all in the name of coporate synergy. The Wildstorm characters were ported over into mainstream continuity, in spite of the fact that they were largely redundant or incompatible. Instead of courting either exciting new talent or industry veterans, the company had difficulty drawing top-tier talent. Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld were among the relaunch’s heavy hitters.

... And what was that about speeding bullets?

… And what was that about speeding bullets?

To be fair, there were bright spots. But the ideas and concepts that were interesting were frequently hobbled by the demands of the publisher. All-Star Western was diminished by having to tie to Gotham City continuity, while attempts at genre diversity in books like Demon Knights or I, Vampire were under-promoted. Emphasis was placed squarely on monthly print sales numbers, with little patience for books to grow their audiences whether online or through collected editions.

In spite of all the confusion and chaos of the relaunch, Grant Morrison writing Action Comics was the cause of considerable excitement. Morrison was one of few comic book writers who could legitimately be described as a superstar, arguably with a higher profile outside mainstream comics than executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. Having Morrison on a monthly book was a big deal, particularly a monthly book as important to the company’s legacy as Action Comics. (Then again, the relaunch also chose to put Tony Daniel on Detective Comics, so there’s that.)

Happily never after...

Happily never after…

More than that, the book represented something of a homecoming for Morrison. Although the character of Superman had struggled with issues of relevance in the twenty-first century, Morrison had been the architect of one of the character’s most beloved stories. All-Star Superman is widely regarded as one of the best Superman stories ever published. Having its author writing a monthly book as part of the relaunch was a big deal. Following high-profile misfires like New Krypton or Grounded, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to put Superman back on the right course.

In many respects, Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics typifies the sort of push-and-pull at the publisher as part of the relaunch. The great ideas smothered by corporate mandates, the tension between familiarity and novelty, the burden of expectation even while trying to chart a new course. For better or worse, Action Comics could be seen as the flagship of DC’s “new 52” initiative. This seems entirely appropriate, given the title’s historical significance to DC comics.

Running jump...

Running jump…

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