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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 3, Episode 9 (“Defiant”)

This weekend, I had the pleasure of dropping by The Pensky Files to discuss one of the more interesting episodes of the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Defiant is a gleefully insane episode of Star Trek, in which William Riker’s evil transporter duplicate hijacks the Defiant to lead a mission into the heart of Cardassian territory to expose a government conspiracy that might threaten the security of the entire Alpha Quadrant. Along the way, there’s discussions of terrorism and heroism, of missed family birthdays, and of just how absurd Picard’s log entries must sound when they are read aloud.

It was a pleasure to record with Wes and Clay, diving deep on everything from Riker’s “woman in need of relaxation”-dar to the franchise’s complicated attitude towards the Maquis. You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Hunters (Review)

Hunters is a weird episode of Star Trek:Voyager, perhaps most notable for the manner in which it flirts with serialisation.

More than any other episode of the fourth season, with the possible exception of The Gift, this mid-season episode seems to exist primarily in relation to the episodes around it. The script is very consciously a sequel to Message in a Bottle, with the crew discovering the ancient network of space stations is a two-way radio back to the Alpha Quadrant. It also introduces the Hirogen, an alien species that will recur in Prey, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II. The story also sets up a narrative thread that will pay off in Hope and Fear, the season finale.

“Prey, tell.”

More than that, Hunters is an episode that is very consciously engaged with dangling threads of continuity. It resolves the relationship between Janeway and Mark that has haunted the lead character since Caretaker, offers Tom Paris some hint of reconciliation with the father who seemed so disappointed in Persistence of Vision, and even resolves the Maquis plot thread by tying back to Blaze of Glory. This is an episode that exists as something of a storytelling nexus point, a variety of intersecting threads all tied together as part of a single narrative.

Voyager had largely eschewed any attempt at long-form storytelling, perhaps in response to the trauma of the troublesome Kazon arc in the second season that led to ill-judged misfires like Alliances and Investigations. However, those early attempts at serialisation were heavily plot-driven, a series of stories building towards a number predetermined plot points. In contrast, the serialisation suggested by Hunters is looser; a collection of character beats, some earlier details that had largely been forgotten, some elements that might be useful in the future.

The farthest woman from home.

That said, Hunters seems just as cautious about long-form storytelling as The Gift was. As much as Hunters revives old story lines and character beats, it also makes a conscious effort to close many of them. Hunters makes it very clear that this level of serialisation will not be the default for the series going forward. The episode tidies away more loose threads than it unravels. The relationship between Kathryn Janeway and Mark Johnson is brought back purely so it can be ended. The Maquis are mentioned only to confirm they have been destroyed.

Still, there is something oddly intriguing about Hunters, a mostly quiet episode that exists primarily as both prelude and coda rather than a narrative in its own right. It is a quieter, stranger Voyager episode, even while introducing a race of giant space!hunters.

Gripping stuff.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Blaze of Glory (Review)

Blaze of Glory is a spectacular piece of television.

It is an episode that serves a very clear plot function in the larger context of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is clearly designed to tidy away some of the dangling loose ends before the show transitions into the Dominion War. Much like Children of Time was really the last “strange Gamma Quadrant phenomenon” episode, Blaze of Glory is the last Maquis episode. It also marks the last appearance of Michael Eddington, a character who has come a long way since his first appearance as the station’s new security officer in The Search, Part I.

Michael Eddington, Noted Brigand.

Michael Eddington, Noted Brigand.

However, even ignoring the fact that Blaze of Glory fulfils these larger obligations in terms of the show’s long-running plot threads, the episode is an engaging and exciting buddy action film that finds Benjamin Sisko paired with one of his most hated adversaries on a dangerous mission into the heart of enemy territory. Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe prepare a script laced with wry banter for unlikely action heroes Avery Brooks and Ken Marshall, while Kim Friedman directs the episode as if it were a lost Reagan era Shane Black script.

However, Blaze of Glory also feels very much like Deep Space Nine at its best. It is an episode that celebrates how much these characters can grow and change, while also revelling in the diversity of perspectives that make Deep Space Nine such a compelling show. It is an episode that understands Sisko and Eddington are perhaps more alike than either would concede, but which explores those parallels in a way that never obscures their key differences or their mutual mistrust.

Disarming conversation.

Disarming conversation.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – For the Uniform (Review)

For the Uniform forms the second entry in a loose trilogy of Michael Eddington stories, sitting between For the Cause and Blaze of Glory.

Much like The Begotten before it, For the Uniform feels like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is tidying up a bunch of loose ends before it barrels into the second half of the season with In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light. It is offering one last story built on the status quo established by The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II before things change dramatically. It is also quite heavy on the kind of impressive space battles that will become a major part of the final two seasons.

Terrorise this!

Terrorise this!

The episode even puts an increased emphasis upon the series’ military themes, with much made of the crippling blow dealt to the Defiant by Eddington’s virus and the operational protocols that this attack necessitates. With Nog standing on the edge of the bridge echoing Sisko’s orders to Engineering, For the Uniform occasionally feels more like like a submarine movie than an episode of Star Trek. This is to say nothing of the attention paid to the Defiant’s departure from Deep Space Nine itself, which plays up the military protocol of such a launch.

However, there is more to For the Uniform than all of that. It is an episode that touches upon a number of key themes for Deep Space Nine. It is a story about moral compromise and ambiguity, about narrative and mythmaking. It is a tale about obsession and vindictiveness, rooted in the flaws of its central character. For the Uniform struggles a little bit in how it approaches Sisko’s monomaniacal pursuit of Eddington, wrapping up so fast that the closing lines offer a sense of tonal whiplash. Nevertheless, it is a bold and breathtaking piece of television.

Shadow boxing...

Shadow boxing…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – For the Cause (Review)

This February and March (and a little bit of April), 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.

For the Cause essentially refocuses the fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, rallying the season’s strength as the finalé approaches.

After a bunch of lackluster episodes, from Rules of Engagement through to Shattered Mirror and The Muse, the show finds its voice once again. For the Cause is not just a great episode of television, it is an episode uniquely tailored to this particular show. For the Cause would not work on any of the other for Star Trek shows, so precisely is it calibrated to what makes Deep Space Nine unique. It is a story about trust and betrayal, but also one that chips away at the romance of Starfleet and the Federation.

Pinning his colours to the mast...

Pinning his colours to the mast…

What is particularly interesting about the stretch of episodes running from here through to Broken Link is the sense that Deep Space Nine is getting back to basics. The fourth season is somewhat overshadowed by the addition of Worf to the cast and the emphasis placed on the Klingons in The Way of the Warrior. Although the production team do a great job working within the studio mandate, this shift in focus has meant that many more traditional elements of Deep Space Nine have been shunted into the background.

The final stretch of the fourth season finds the show returning to ideas that were threaded through earlier seasons and were shifted slightly out of focus with the return of the Klingons. For the Cause brings the Maquis back to the fore. To the Death, The Quickening and Broken Link focus on the Dominion threat. Body Parts returns to Ferengi politics. To be fair, the Maquis were the only element that totally faded from view over the fourth season, so it makes sense to return to them first.

A stunning betrayal...

A stunning betrayal…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dreadnought (Review)

This February and March, 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 Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Dreadnought is arguably a much better version of Prototype.

Both are essentially horror stories about B’Elanna Torres essentially creating a new mechanical life form, making a decision that has unforeseeable consequences. There is an element of reproductive horror to all this, reinforced by the clever decision to have B’Elanna literally give the eponymous warhead her own voice and watch it engage in a course that is quite literally self-destructive. It is perhaps the quintessential reproductive horror story, the fear that we might create something that will supplant us; that our children become the worst reflections of ourselves.

Engine of mass destruction...

Engine of mass destruction…

It is interesting that Dreadnought followed Meld so closely; both are essentially stories about how Star Trek: Voyager (and its characters) cannot cleanly escape their past, as much as the show might push it (and them) towards a generic Star Trek template. The middle of the second season sees an emphasis on the idea that Voyager is composed of two radically different crews – that Starfleet and the Maquis are not as integrated as shows like Parallax or Learning Curve might suggest.

Alliances, Meld and Dreadnought all build on the idea of underlying tensions that were mostly glossed over during the first season. Of course, this creates a weird dissonance, as Voyager seems to actually be moving backwards rather than forwards – attempting a half-hearted do-over of some of its earliest miscalculations.

Engineering a solution...

Engineering a solution…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Meld (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.

Meld is a masterpiece. It is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager to date. There is perhaps a reasonable argument to be made that it is one of the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is, in many respects, one of the strongest and most compelling exploration of themes that have been bubbling around in the background since Caretaker, offering a more thoughtful and insightful exploration of the nineties culture of fear and anxiety than anything involving the Kazon. It is certainly the best use of Tuvok that the show managed in its seven year run.

Meld is an episode about violence, in its many forms. It is a story about the horrors and arbitrariness of unprovoked violence, but also about the cycles of violence that such actions can create. In many respects, Meld is a more scathing criticism of the death penalty than Repentance, the seventh season episode explicitly written as a death penalty allegory. Unlike many of the surrounding episodes, Meld actually manages to make good use of the show’s Delta Quadrant setting to heighten the dramatic stakes.

"Where's your head at?"

“Where’s your head at?”

In a way, Meld represents a collision of the franchise’s past and future. Meld may be the last truly great Star Trek script written by Michael Piller, the writer who helped to define the modern iteration of the franchise with his work on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, it is also Mike Sussman’s first story credit on the franchise; Sussman would go on to join the show’s writing staff in its final season and would be one of the few writers to serve a full four seasons on Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the script for Meld is exceptionally well-written, the episode is elevated by a combination of factors. Cliff Bole does great work in bringing a very unconventional Star Trek episode to life. Meld could be seen as a continuation of the second season’s b-movie charms. Following on from the robot wars of Prototype and the body horror of Threshold, Meld plays like a Star Trek serial killer thriller. Bole’s directorial choices are consciously stylised, with delightful little touches like the band of light across Tuvok’s eyes when the body is discovered.

"Funny. I though Braga murdered Darwin last week."

“Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week.”

The episode also benefits from two mesmerising central performances from guest star Brad Dourif and Tim Russ. Russ was always one of the more under-utilised members of the Voyager ensemble, particularly when his “obligatory emotionally detached character” role was usurped by Seven of Nine in the fourth season. It is a shame, as Russ has a great deal of fun channeling Nimoy in his portrayal of the franchise’s first full-blooded Vulcan regular. Tuvok (and Russ) deserved more attention than the show afforded him.

That said, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show here. Lon Suder is one of the most fascinating guest characters in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and perhaps the only recurring character member of the Voyager crew who made any impression. A lot of that is down to the novelty of a fundamentally violent character in a Starfleet uniform, but Dourif is absolutely brilliant in the part. Dourif might just be the best guest star ever to appear in Voyager, and one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Beta(zoid) male.

Beta(zoid) male.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of Meld is the way that it feels very much of its time; it is an episode that firmly engages with a cultural context around Voyager. So much of Voyager seems lost in some sort of weird science-fiction neverland where the fifties and sixties never ended that a well-produced episode that feels of its time is a rarity. Meld is an episode that would feel strange ten years earlier or ten years later, but one which aligns perfectly with the wider context of 1996.

It is a overdue triumph from the Voyager team.

Smile!

Smile!

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