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Star Trek: Voyager – Nightingale (Review)

During the production of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, producer Michael Piller laid down a template for Star Trek storytelling that became a large (and underrated) part of the series’ successful. Following on from the unfocused and clumsy first two seasons, Piller advocated from a strong character-driven storytelling sensibility, advocating for a narrative structure whereby each episode would reveal or inform something interesting about a given character, quite apart from any phenomenon of the week or interesting alien species.

It was a template that was so sturdy that Piller himself could open the season by applying it to Wesley Crusher in Evolution. Ronald D. Moore was perhaps the first writer to really understand the appeal of the structure, applying it to Worf in The Bonding and Sins of the Father. Even when episodes weren’t about the main characters, they still offered some insight. Tin Man, Déjà Q and The Defector were both episodes focused on a guest star, but that guest star was largely seen through Data’s eyes.

Captain Kim.

There were stories that didn’t adhere to this template. Often, like in Hollow Pursuits and Yesterday’s Enterprise, they focused on a guest star rather than the leads. However, these episodes were the exception that proved the rule. Even the less successful episodes of the season, like A Matter of Perspective or Ménage à Troi were still elevated above the troubled first and second seasons by this attention to character-driven storytelling. Piller set a template that lasted for the next four seasons, and beyond.

In the middle seasons of Star Trek: Voyager, there was a tension between this template and the demands of contemporary television. The writing staff on Voyager understood the basic rhythms and structure of the template that Piller established, and kept applying it after his departure following Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. Stories like Nemesis and Timeless found a way to apply that template to even neglected characters like Chakotay and Kim. The only issue was that the template felt increasingly outdated.

He’s (Nee)lixed.

Modern television was moving on. The X-Files and Babylon 5 were embracing sprawling epic television storytelling. Television series like The Sopranos and Oz were adopting a more novelistic approach to the medium. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was consciously moving away from self-contained episodes in favour of longer-form storytelling, most notably the six-parter that ran from A Time to Stand through to Sacrifice of Angels. There was a sense that, even applied skillfully and correctly, the Piller template reflected an older mode of television storytelling.

One of the big issues with the seventh season of Voyager is a palpable feeling that even this foundational block of Star Trek storytelling dating back to The Next Generation has begun to erode. The seventh season of Voyager is packed with stories that look and feel loosely that familiar Piller template, broad narratives focusing on individual characters and big ideas wherein the characters develop or discover something about themselves. However, these episodes also tend to look like they were constructed from a faded photocopy of that classic blueprint.

In-tractor-able.

This is reflected in the broad “Star-Trek-iness” of stories like Drive or Critical Care, episodes that gesture toward social commentary while working hard to avoid actually saying anything potentially engaging. It is also reflected in character-driven episodes like Imperfection or Body and Soul, which superficially resemble the template that Piller laid out for telling a good self-contained Star Trek story, but failing to connect all of the pieces in a way that makes any real sense.

Nightingale is perhaps the season’s best example of this, for so many reasons. It is the last Voyager episode to focus on the character of Harry Kim, but returns to what has been his standard character arc since Demon. It has a strong central throughline about the importance of taking command, and the responsibilities of being in authority, but it also never allows these elements to cohere into a strong central thesis. It contains stock Star Trek elements like an alien war and the challenge of non-interference, but doesn’t do anything with them. It is simply a mess.

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Star Trek: Discovery – Choose Your Pain (Review)

Choose Your Pain is perhaps the most traditional episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date, at least in terms of basic structure.

One of the central tensions of Discovery has been trying to figure out exactly how much to modernise the standard Star Trek storytelling template, the basic model of storytelling that has been in play through Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. These shows were produced over an eighteen-year period running from the second half of the eighties through to the turn of the millennium. However, a lot has happened in the twelve years since These Are the Voyages…

Avenging angel Gabriel.

Quite simply, television has changed phenomenally over the past decade. A number of these changes are obvious even in the way that Discovery is produced. After all, Discovery is the first Star Trek show to premiere on a streaming service. However, Discovery also conforms to other expectations of contemporary television. Discovery is much more tightly serialised than The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Discovery is also the shortest season of Star Trek ever produced.

There is a sense that times are changing, and that Discovery is attempting to provide an early twenty-first century update to a thirty-year-old template. After all, no other Star Trek series opened its first season with a two-episode prologue before introducing its core setting and premise. No other Star Trek series feature as many extended sequences with characters speaking subtitled Klingon. No other Star Trek series has featured swear words like “piss”, “sh!t” or “f$@k.” These are all new frontiers for televised Star Trek.

An echo chamber.

At the same time, Discovery has proven itself remarkably conservative in other respects. Although the show is very clearly serialised, the production team have worked hard to ensure that each individual episode has its own plot with its own structure and its own agenda. Unlike other streaming dramas, the episodes of Discovery are clear and distinct from one another, each serving as a bullet point in the overall arc of the season. Similarly, Discovery has made a point to use standard Star Trek narratives imbued with standard Star Trek morals built in.

For all the noise being made in certain quarters of the internet that Discovery is not really a Star Trek series, Choose Your Pain is the most conservative and old-fashioned episode of the series to date. Choose Your Pain is an episode that could easily have worked as part of Deep Space Nine or Enterprise, preserving the structure and rhythm with only a few minor tweaks along the way. Ironically, the episode’s biggest issue is that it feels just a little bit too much like classic Star Trek.

Here’s Mudd in your eye.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 2 (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.

The second season of Star Trek: Voyager was a disaster.

There is no other way to describe it. The second season of Voyager is a messy run populated with malformed episodes and terrible creative decisions, compounded by the sense that the production team has turned upon itself and the network is feeling more and more uncomfortable with its flagship show. The first season of Voyager had debuted at the franchise’s cultural zenith, as the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation transitioned to the big screen with Star Trek: Generations and as Paramount chose the franchise to be the cornerstone of its new network.

voy-basicspart1w

However, there was very clearly trouble in paradise. It could be argued that Voyager was in a large part the victim of the franchise’s success. Frustration over how Paramount chose to assign the writing duties for Generations led Michael Piller to divorce himself from the franchise to develop other ideas.While UPN was very lucky to have a show like Voyager, the network consciously pushed the production team away from narrative experimentation in favour of cookie-cutter plotting.

The basic premise of “Starfleet and Maquis find themselves roughing it in the Delta Quadrant” was eroded surprisingly quickly over the course of that first year. All the Maquis crew members were in Starfleet uniforms by the start of Parallax. Any hint of conflict between the two was downplayed with a joint Starfleet and Maquis mutiny in Prime Factors. Luxury items like the holodeck were able to run in episodes like Heroes and Demons and Cathexis. A Romulan guest starred in Eye of the Needle. So the first season betrayed a lot of what made the initial idea interesting.

voy-resolutions26a

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Swarm (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.

The Swarm helps to solidify the Jeri Taylor era, even as it is shuffled in among relics of Michael Piller’s tenure.

Much like The Chute before it, The Swarm has a great central premise built around the classic model of using the franchise to tell allegorical stories. The episode has a great hook and a great central performance, along with a strong sense of theme that makes it easier to relate to the whole thing. In The Chute, Kenneth Biller touched on issues of punishment and incarceration. In The Swarm, Mike Sussman tells a sweet story about caring for a loved one whose mental faculties are degrading. (This was a theme to which Sussman would return tangentially with Twilight.)

Talking to himself...

Talking to himself…

However, that strong central premise is also betrayed by several severe structural problems that hold the episode back from greatness. The Chute was a few rewrites away from greatness, its final act existing primarily to close out an hour of broadcasting rather than to tie together the preceding forty minutes of television. The Swarm grafts its emotionally compelling story of mental collapse onto a fairly generic “evil alien” narrative that somehow challenges to become the episode’s primary plot thread.

As with The Chute, there is a sense that The Swarm is codifying what will become standard practice for the series from this point forward. The biggest issue with The Swarm is the decision to undercut the episode’s emotional arc by having the series reset the EMH’s reset. In what arguably makes it the perfect example of the issues that will plague Star Trek: Voyager from here until Endgame, the show literally presses a reset button on a reset button. The Swarm is a meta-reset, if you will.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Basics, Part II (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.

With Basics, Part II, the second season comes to an end.

In both technical and spiritual terms, of course. The production team decided to retain the strategy that they had employed during the show’s first season, adding an additional filming block on to the end of the season in order to film a bunch of episodes that would be broadcast at the start of the third broadcast season. At the end of the first season, four episodes were produced and held back – Projections, Elogium, Twisted, and The 37’s. As such, four second season episodes were produced after Basics, Part ISacred Ground, False Profits, Flashback and Basics, Part II.

Picking over the bones. An apt image for the third season premiere.

Picking over the bones.
An apt image for the third season premiere.

So, Basics, Part II marks the end of the show’s second production season. Even though it was the first episode of the third season to be broadcast, it was the last episode of the second season to be produced. It is very consciously designed to bring the curtain down on a particular era of the show. Basics, Part II marks the end of the line for various threads running through the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. It is the last Kazon story, the last Seska story, the last Lon Suder story, the last Star Trek television script written by Michael Piller.

Basics, Part II seems written in the hope that it might end a troubled era for the show and for the larger franchise. While things undoubtedly got smoother, it remains highly debatable whether the franchise ever properly recovered.

Let sleeping eels lie...

Let sleeping eels lie…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Basics, Part I (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.

With Basics, Part I, the second season comes to an end.

In a very specific sense, of course. The production team decided to retain the strategy that they had employed during the show’s first season, adding an additional filming block on to the end of the season in order to film a bunch of episodes that would be broadcast at the start of the third broadcast season. At the end of the first season, four episodes were produced and held back – Projections, Elogium, Twisted, and The 37’s. As such, four second season episodes were produced after Basics, Part ISacred Ground, False Profits, Flashback and Basics, Part II.

Heading home alone.

Heading home alone.

However, Basics, Part I marks the end of the show’s second broadcast season. It is very consciously designed as season finalé, something that the first season had struggled with by slotting Learning Curve into the broadcast slot. Basics, Part I also marks the beginning of the end for various threads running through the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. It is the first part of the last Kazon story, the last Seska story, the last Lon Suder story, the last Star Trek television story written by Michael Piller.

It marks the beginning of the end of a troubled era for the show and for the larger franchise.

Hitchhiking in this part of space is very dangerous.

Hitchhiking in this part of space is very dangerous.

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