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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tacking Into the Wind (Review)

Tacking Into the Wind might just be the last truly great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Of course, there are some very good episodes lying ahead. However, none of them hum as perfectly as Tacking Into the Wind does. The Dogs of War is fantastically constructed and does pretty much everything that a penultimate episode of a long running series needs to do, but it largely feels like a prelude episode to the grand finale. What You Leave Behind is a powerful and emotive piece of television, and an effective conclusion to seven years of storytelling, but it suffers from some pacing issues and some poor storytelling choices in its second half.

The end of an era.

However, Tacking Into the Wind is just brilliant. Deep Space Nine has produced more than its fair share of (relatively) standalone classic episodes: Duet, The WireThe Way of the Warrior, The Visitor, Trials and Tribble-ations, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight. Even in the seventh season, there have been any number of episodes that work beautifully on their own terms: Treachery, Faith and the Great River, Once More Unto the Breach, The Siege of AR-558, Chimera. Even those tied into larger arcs like the Dominion War still worked as relatively standalone units of story.

However, Tacking Into the Wind is brilliant in a way that is very particular to this moment of Deep Space Nine. Perhaps the closest companion pieces are episodes like Call to Arms or Sacrifice of Angels, episodes that work well enough on their own terms, but become transcendental when approached as the culmination of long-running story threads that pay off months of storytelling decisions. Taking Into the Wind takes this approach and escalates it further. Taking Into the Wind is the culmination of a narrative that has been brewing for the better part of a decade.

Surviving by the skin of his teeth.

Tacking Into the Wind is an episode that could never have worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. It is too dependent on lingering narrative threads, on long-running arcs, on a grand and sweeping (and ironic) view of history. Tacking Into the Wind ties up the fate of the Klingon Empire, an institution that has been in decline since Heart of Glory and rotting from the inside out since Sins of the Father. It parallels that with a fundamental underlying shift in the Cardassian society introduced in The Wounded.

Tacking Into the Wind is an episode that could only possibly work as the pay off to serialised storytelling, and which demonstrates the power of a good dramatic pay-off almost a decade in the making. In many ways, Tacking Into the Wind is the perfect episode for this so-called “Final Chapter”, the perfect distillation of everything that the creative team have been trying to do with this ten-part sprawling epic.

Cloak of office.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Strange Bedfellows (Review)

Three seems to be the magic number when it comes to long-form plotting in Berman era Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next Generation arguably pulled off a three-consecutive-episodes arc with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, The Best of Both Worlds, Part II and Family. Even the continuity-adverse Star Trek: Voyager managed something similar with Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II and The Gift. Star Trek: Enterprise tried a number of three-episode arcs in its final season, even if only The Forge, Awakening and Kir’Shara really worked; Borderland was a preamble to Cold Station 12 and The Augments, while The Aenar was a postscript to Babel One and United.

Super villain team-up.

Three episodes seems to work quite well for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The series’ second season premiere was the franchise’s first bona fides three-parter, The Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege. Even when it came to longer arcs, three consecutive episodes seemed be the limit; after Call to Arms, A Time to Stand and Rocks and Shoals, the arc opening the sixth season stumbled with Sons and Daughters before regaining its footing for Behind the Lines, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels.

As an aside, it also took three episodes for the alliance between the Dominion and Cardassia to properly integrate into the show’s mythology after the events of In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light; the fifth season took a pause with Doctor Bashir, I Presume, A Simple Investigation and Business as Usual before beginning to unpack the consequences of that statusquo-shattering twist in Ties of Blood and Water.

Hang loose.

There are any number of reasons why three works so well. Maybe three episodes allow for that classic three-act structure, the iconic storytelling template. Perhaps the production team on Deep Space Nine tended to work in chunks of three scripts at a time, with two or three subsequent scripts in development by the time that any given script was finished; if this was the case, it would mean that the production team was ready to start fresh with the fourth script. Whatever the reason, it is a familiar pattern.

Although “the Final Chapter” is nominally a ten-episode arc, counting What You Leave Behind as two distinct episodes, the plot beats tend to flow in discernible three-episode chunks. Ezri’s mission to rescue Worf plays out over Penumbra, ‘Til Death Do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows. Gul Rusot is introduced in The Changing Face of Evil, is built up in When It Rains…, and meets his end in Tacking Into the Wind. Bashir discovers that Odo is sick in When It Rains…, figures out Section 31 is responsible in Tacking Into the Wind, and recovers the cure in Extreme Measures.

The window of opportunity is closing.

The opening salvo of this ten-episode arc was clearly intended as a three-part story. The original titles of the episodes were Penumbra, Umbra and Eclipse, suggesting an encroaching darkness that would cast a long shadow by the end of the third episode. Coincidentally or not, that would mark the end of the first third of the larger story arc. It suggests a very formal and careful structure, suggesting a three-act structure within the first act of a three-act structure. On paper, it is a very bold and ambitious piece of structuring from the Deep Space Nine writers.

However, the production struggle to maintain that structure. These ten episodes stumble when it comes to pacing and plotting. The weakest threads in this final run are those that feel either rushed or over-extended, which struggle to hit the right beats. Strange Bedfellows is an episode that struggles because it feels like its storythreads have either been stretched or compressed, the important events either pulled back into ‘Til Death to Us Part or pushed forward into The Changing Face of Evil. The result is an episode that feels stranded between bigger story beats.

No time for reflection.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Day of Honour (Review)

Day of Honour is a reminder that, while Brannon Braga is clearly the heir apparent, Jeri Taylor is still the showrunner on Star Trek: Voyager.

Day of Honour is noticeably and recognisably a Jeri Taylor episode, particularly following so sharply from Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II, and The Gift. This is a script that plays very firmly to Jeri Taylor’s idea of Star Trek, including an emphasis on the development of interpersonal relationships and also a very traditional perspective on how the franchise is supposed work. Day of Honour is a very conservative episode following the bombast of the three very ambitious stories bridging the third and fourth seasons.

"Don't worry, Janeway will never miss it."

“Don’t worry, Janeway will never miss it.”

In some ways, this is undoubtedly a good thing. Jeri Taylor is clearly more interested in developing relationships between the characters than Brannon Braga. Taylor was a very old-school television writer and producer, but her best material on Voyager suggested a genuine interest in the cast and the characters. Resolutions is an episode consciously rooted in the romantic tension between Chakotay and Janeway. Coda is a very clear elaboration on Taylor’s interpretation of Janeway.

Taylor even drafted biographies for the crew in the form of Mosaic and Pathways, suggesting a deeper interest in the characters’ inner lives than any other writer on staff. In some ways, Day of Honour is an extension of this approach. It is the culmination of Taylor’s attempts to push Paris and Torres together in third season episodes like The Swarm, Blood Fever and Displaced. That relationship became one of the nicer dynamics on Voyager, and would never have happened under the oversight of either Michael Piller or Brannon Braga.

Adrift.

Adrift.

However, there are also very serious problems with Day of Honour. In keeping with the tone of Voyager during Taylor’s tenure, it is a very conservative piece of television both in terms of style and politics. After The Gift worked so hard to generate tension between Seven of Nine and the Voyager crew, Day of Honour casually brushes that aside. And it deals with an interesting story about the legacy of Seven’s relationship to the Borg in the most trite manner possible, the plot hinging on a techno-babble solution to ensure there is no actual conflict.

More than that, Day of Honour is incredibly reactionary in its portrayal of the Caatati, a refugee race who were rendered homeless by the Borg Collective. These dispossessed aliens are presented as greed and underhanded, ready to exploit the charity of our heroes and to betray them at the first opportunity. It is an extension of the xenophobic panic of Displaced, a tale about how our privileged heroes should react with paranoia and mistrust to those who arrive by accident or in distress. It is a rather uncomfortable Star Trek theme.

Means of transport.

Means of transport.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Affliction (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.

The shift from episodic storytelling to a more serialised format poses all manner of challenges for the Star Trek production team.

By the time that Star Trek: Enterprise embraced long-form storytelling with The Expanse at the end of its second season, the franchise was dangerous behind the curve. During the nineties, genre shows like The X-Files, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5 had demonstrated the potential of serialisation as a narrative tool. Even within this particular franchise, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had managed to strike a reasonable balance between standalone stories and the larger narrative framework.

Nothin' but Trip...

Nothin’ but Trip…

This is say nothing of the revolution taking place on a wider scale. HBO had allowed its production team to embrace the potential of long-form storytelling on late nineties shows like Oz or The Sopranos. Within a few years, the cable broadcaster had attracted considerable mainstream attention by embracing serialisation on shows like The Wire, Deadwood and Rome. In the meantime, Star Trek: Voyager had steadfastly refused to move beyond the episodic model. When Ronald D. Moore left the franchise, any experience with serialisation left with him.

As such, it is no surprise that the franchise struggled with some of the challenges posed by a serialised storytelling model. In particular, Enterprise struggled a little bit with integrating its entire ensemble into its new serialised storytelling model. Affliction and Divergence feel like an attempt to rectify this issue, with mixed results.

It's all coming together...

It’s all coming together…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Forge (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.

The Kir’Shara trilogy is the strongest three-parter of Star Trek: Enterprise‘s fourth season. It could legitimately be argued that the Kir’Shara trilogy is the strongest story of the entire season and one of the strongest stories of the show’s four-season run.

There are a lot of reasons why this is the case. The Kir’Shara trilogy makes great use of the franchise’s continuity and history, without getting too tied down into references for the sake of references. Indeed, there is a valid argument to be made that the trilogy represents the most overt rewriting of continuity across the fourth season, an ironic touch for a season so committed to continuity. The story does excellent work the show’s under-utilised supporting cast. The adventure actually merits three episodes, the story never dragging or wandering off on tangents.

Under a not quite blood red sky...

Under a not quite blood red sky…

However, a large part of why this trilogy of episodes works better than the Borderland trilogy or the United trilogy is a simple piece of structuring. The Kir’Shara trilogy has a very clear and linear three-act structure, with each of the three episodes fitting comfortably together while doing their bit to advance and escalate the plot. There are no strange structural detours like the siege in Cold Station 12 or the visit to Andoria in The Aenar. Each of these three episodes is recognisable part of a singular larger story that builds to a crescendo.

The Forge does an excellent job setting up the arc, Awakening does an excellent job raising the stakes, and Kir’Shara does an excellent job tying it all together. The result is a satisfying two-hour television movie broadcast in three forty-minute chunks.

Mapping out an adventure...

Mapping out an adventure…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Augments (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.

The fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise is obsessed with continuity.

More than any other season of Star Trek, the fourth season drips with references and nods towards the franchise’s rich history. Nothing is off limits. The fourth season explains how the Klingons lost their ridges, what happened to the Defiant, how the Federation came to be, the origins of the Earth-Romulan War. It features prominent guest appearances from Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis in roles explicitly tied to their part in the franchise. There are trips to Vulcan and the mirror universe, Romulus and Andoria.

Hitting rewind...

Hitting rewind…

This obsession with continuity is part of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it arguably serves to make the show more insular and introspective at a point when the franchise was on the cusp of collapse. These references could distract from storytelling and feel like indulgence for the sake of indulgence. On the other hand, it is not as if a broader audience was watching Enterprise at this point. Pandering to the fanbase makes sense when the fans are the only ones left. More than that, if the franchise is dying, it makes sense to have its life flash before its eyes.

However, what is most striking about the nostalgia running through the final season of Enterprise is the way that it feels almost ahead of its time. In the way that fourth season looks backwards, it seems to almost be looking forwards.

Obligatory sexy underwear fight, in case you forgot this is till airing on UPN.

Obligatory sexy underwear fight, in case you forgot this is till airing on UPN.

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Star Trek: The Klingon Dictionary (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Something absolutely fascinating happened around the release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

It seemed like the entire Star Trek universe suddenly got wider and broader. While alien races and cultures had always been a part of the franchise, they seemed to exist as little more than mirrors of human society – a prism through which we might view the modern world. While episodes like Amok Time and The Day of the Dove teased the idea of elaborate and truly alien civilisations, in most cases the show wasn’t committed to building a universe so much as telling an engaging story on its own terms.

This is, of course, a valid approach. Producing a weekly television show, it makes sense to focus on entertaining an audience with each and every episode. A fully-formed universe is a little pointless if nobody is actually watching it. However, around the release of The Search for Spock, something changed. All of a sudden, the cultures occupying the shared Star Trek universe seemed to take on a life of their own – they began to develop into more than just mirrors or reflections.

This is apparent in The Search for Spock itself, albeit obliquely. Kruge is not the most well-defined of adversaries, but he has a point. He is worried about what the Genesis Device means from outside the context of the Federation. He’s reacting to cultural imperialism, rejecting the right of the Federation to remake worlds in their own image. The Klingon Empire suddenly existed as more than just a convenient foe when the episode needed some stock communists, but an adversary with legitimate concerns and perspectives.

This change was mirrored outside The Search for Spock as well. Directly before the publication of Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelisation of The Search for Spock, Pocket Books released John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection. The novel was an in-depth look at Klingon culture, one that went on to influence Ronald D. Moore’s development of Klingon culture on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The novel published following McIntyre’s novelisation of The Search for Spock was Diane Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally, an exploration of the Romulans.

Perhaps the most interesting example of this trend and development can be seen with the publication of the Klingon dictionary, as written by linguist Marc Okrand, based on his work for The Search for Spock. All of a sudden, Klingons were developed enough that they needed their own language.

klingondictionary

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