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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part II (Review)

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part I (Review)

Once again, Star Trek: Voyager takes its cues from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Next Generation bridged its sixth and seventh seasons with Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. That season-bridging two-parter was focused on discord within the Borg Collective, with the crew coming into contact with a group of drones that had separated themselves from the hive mind. It was a somewhat underwhelming two-parter, and is unlikely to rank alongside anybody’s favourite episodes (or even favourite two-parter) from the run of The Next Generation.

Things come to a head.

Even then, Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II had a lot of weight behind them. Glossing over the quality of the episodes themselves, they marked the big reintroduction of the Borg into The Next Generation following their appearance in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The only episode to feature the Borg in the three years between those two-parters was I, Borg, meaning that the return of the Borg at the end of the sixth season of The Next Generation was a big deal.

As such, this seems like a strange cue for Voyager to take from The Next Generation. After all, Voyager doesn’t have that same luxury of built-in anticipation. Voyager bridged its own third and fourth seasons with Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, but the Borg have been a steady fixture of the series since then. Ignoring the addition of characters like Seven of Nine and Icheb to the core cast, the Borg have played important roles in episodes like Hope and Fear, Drone, Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II, Collective and Child’s Play.

Picking their brains.

That is a lot of focus, particularly in the context of a television series like Voyager, where there is less continuity from episode to episode. Including hallucinations, dead bodies, screen images and holograms, the Borg appear in twenty-three episodes of Voyager, as compared to six episodes of The Next Generation. By way of contrast, the Hirogen appear in between nine and ten episodes, depending on how one counts Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Malon only appear in four episodes.

All of this is to say that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II feel like a rather blatant rip-off of an already underwhelming two-parter, but without the core appeal. Voyager has reached the point where the appearance of the Borg is a source of dread, but not for the reasons that it should be.

She’s had some bodywork done.

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Luke Cage – All Souled Out (Review)

It is interesting watching Luke Cage in the age of Donald Trump.

The first season did not have to worry about such things. Luke Cage premiered in late September 2016, more than a month before Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the United States Presidential Election. The first season had entered production a year earlier, in September 2015, only fourth months after Donald Trump had announced his presidential bid. Production on the first season wrapped in March 2016, a couple of months before Ted Cruz would formally throw in the towel and affirm Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

However, the second season emerges in a highly-charged political environment where it seems like every piece of popular culture exists in the shadow of Donald Trump. Trump exerts a strange gravity over popular culture, making every piece of pop culture a strange referendum on his premiereship. Is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom about Donald J. Trump? How about Darkest Hour? Could the analogy stretch to Avengers: Infinity War? There is so much pop culture and so little time.

At the same time, it seems inevitable that the second season of Luke Cage would have to confront the legacy of Donald Trump and what he represents in American popular culture. However, the series does this in a rather interesting way.

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Luke Cage – I Get Physical (Review)

Luke Cage is engaged with the idea of celebrity.

To be fair, it is perhaps the only Marvel Netflix series that could explore this particular theme. After all, Daredevil is about a vigilante who trades in fear and operates primarily at night. Jessica Jones is about a self-hating alcoholic who is constantly on the verge of imploding. Iron Fist is so mired in cultural appropriation that it is impossible to imagine the series pulling off the theme in a manner that wouldn’t make the show worse. The Punisher is afraid to acknowledge what its hero actually is.

In contrast, Luke Cage is anchored in a central character who is essentially a neighbourhood celebrity. Soul Brother #1 demonstrates how Luke has imposed himself on Harlem, his actions tracked through an application, his merchandise sold in the barbershop, his image graffitied on walls. In Straighten It Out, he hands out his contact details, with instructions to call him if there is an emergency. In Can’t Front On Me, it is made clear that the local community know that they can reach out to him in person at the barbershop in case of emergency.

However, what is most striking about the handling of celebrity within Luke Cage is not just that it deals with the idea of Luke as a celebrity, but that it then uses Luke in order to interrogate how society treats its celebrities and how popular culture hungers for the fall just as excitedly as they cheered for the rise.

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Star Trek – A Piece of the Action (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

A Piece of the Action is the last script credited to Gene L. Coon.

Of course, Coon would write two episodes for (and contributed two more stories to) the show’s troubled final season under the alias Lee Cronin. However, A Piece of the Action could be seen as the last hurrah for Gene L. Coon’s vision of Star Trek. The writer and producer had helped to shape and define many of the ideas that Star Trek fans take for granted. A lot of the core Star Trek ideas that have permeated into popular culture – the Federation, the Klingons – originated with Coon.

Dey call his Boss Koik...

Dey call him Boss Koik…

While Coon is often overlooked when it comes to crediting those responsible for creating Star Trek as fans have come to know it, history has tended to gloss over his wry subversive streak. In many ways, Coon could be said to be the godfather of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Had he not passed away at the tragically young age of forty-nine, Coon might have been coaxed back to write a first season episode of Deep Space Nine alongside Dorothy Fontana. Coon was, after all, the first Star Trek writer to shrewdly and knowingly problematicise the Federation.

So it feels appropriate that the last Star Trek script credited to Coon should have Kirk proposes the Federation as an intergalactic racket.

Top gun...

Top gun…

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