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Star Trek: Voyager – Body and Soul (Review)

Body and Soul is the old science-fiction staple, the body swap episode.

There are any number of iconic examples of the genre, even within the larger Star Trek franchise. Although the original series was populated with duplicates and doppelgängers and surrogates and clones in episodes like The Enemy Within, Mirror, Mirror, Whom Gods Destroy and even What Are Little Girls Made Of?Turnabout Intruder might be the most straightforward example. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock featured sequences in which McCoy was channelling Spock. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had all the cast take on the personalities of Dax’s past hosts in Facets.

Insert your cheesecake jokes here.

Often, these sorts of stories exist to showcase the dramatic range of key performers and to offer a little variety to the weekly routine of playing the same character for years and years on end. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Brent Spiner would occasionally find himself tasked with playing Data’s “brother” Lore or his “father” Noonien Soong in episodes like Datalore, Family, Descent, Part I, Descent, Part II and Inheritance. The cast on Deep Space Nine would play their mirror counterparts in stories like Crossover, Through the Looking Glass and Shattered Mirror.

Even Star Trek: Voyager has done its own body swap and possession narratives before, like with Tuvok in Cathexis or with Paris in Vis à Vis. However, the success of these sorts of episodes largely rests in the execution, in the question of whether it is worth watching a familiar actor playing an unfamiliar role for forty-five minutes. This is a tough challenge, and many episodes falter trying to hit that mark. Body and Soul has a lot of very fundamental issues with it, but it at least has the common sense to ask one of the cast’s best actors to impersonate another of the cast’s best actors.

“Next week is a Kim episode?”

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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: Enterprise – E² (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Conventional wisdom treats as a bump in the road between The Forgotten and The Council, an episode that could easily be skipped on a marathon rewatch of the season. The argument suggests that the episode ultimately provides little meaningful information and advances the season’s over-arching plot by inches. The most critical of fans will consider an episode that saps the momentum out of the final run of the third season, preventing a clear home run between Azati Prime and Zero Hour.

This is certainly true from a plot-driven perspective. It would be easy enough to trim from the twenty-four episode season order without anybody batting an eyelid. At least Shran gets to make a cameo appearance in Zero Hour, while Lorian fades into discontinuity and non-existence. Like so many time travel stories, the final act of conveniently erases itself from existence. This just reinforces the sense that nothing that happened actually mattered in the grand scheme of things.

It's like looking in a mirror...

It’s like looking in a mirror…

This is another example of the complications that tend to come with serialised storytelling. The conventional way of telling a long-form story is to drive it via plot – to have a clear path along which the characters might advance with a number of clear markers along the way. In the case of the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise, the launch of the Xindi weapon is an obvious marker; it is a plot point which the show must address before the end of the season. As such, the show’s serialisation is typically measured by whether it moves the crew in relation to that plot point.

doesn’t move the crew appreciably closer to that plot point. There is a miniature hurdle for the crew to overcome (getting into the subspace corridor to make the meeting with Degra), but it is very clearly just window-dressing on a plot that is very clearly more interested in the time-travel dynamics of having the Enterprise crew meet their descendants. The same narrative ground could have been covered by having Degra accompany Archer to the Xindi Council at the end of The Forgotten.

He's all ears...

He’s all ears…

However, plot is not the only thing important to long-form storytelling. Theme and character are just as important, as The Forgotten demonstrated. The biggest problem with is that it is a plot-driven episode of television that advances the season’s thematic and character arcs, but with a story that is disconnected from the season as a whole. Which is a shame, because the thematic and character dynamics are fascinating. This is the perfect point at which to confront Archer with the idea of legacy and consequence; to ask what kind of future might lie ahead.

As with a lot of the scripts for the third season, feels like a meditation on Enterprise‘s relationship with the rest of the franchise and where it stands at this point in its run.

"Worf and Dax neve rhad to put up with crap like this."

“Worf and Dax neve rhad to put up with crap like this.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Stratagem (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

With Stratagem, the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise gets its head back in the game.

The recent stretch of third season episodes seemed to lose sight of what made this such an intriguing premise. Although Rick Berman had conceded that there was an escape hatch in place in case the Xindi arc could not sustain a full season of television, it was increasingly clear that the third season of Enterprise would be a single extended arc exploring Archer’s attempts to find the source of a deadly threat against mankind. It was a bold experiment for a show that had been quite rigidly episodic to this point. At least in theory.

Archer's on candid camera...

Archer’s on candid camera…

In practice, the third season of Enterprise seemed to flounder a little bit once it got past the initial burst of speed powering it into the third season. All of a sudden, the crew found themselves involved in a number of increasingly stand-alone adventures with superficial ties to the larger arc. Episodes like Extinction and Chosen Realm could easily have been produced and broadcast during the show’s first two seasons, with minor alterations. Exile and North Star were only loosely connected to the season’s plot. Carpenter Street was a time travel episode.

Proving Ground had suggested that the show was ready to re-focus its attention on the matter at hand and get back to the imminent threat posed by the Xindi. At the same time, the episode was also keen to stress its episodic nature – most notably in its role as the show’s annual check-in with the Andorians. Stratagem is very much its own self-contained story, but it is a lot more confident about how it fits in the larger scheme of things, and where it fits in the broader arc of the season.

Engineering a convincing set-up...

Engineering a convincing set-up…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Anomaly (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Anomaly continues the sense that the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is essentially a new first season of the show.

That is most obvious in the way that the script works hard to establish the ground rules of the Expanse. There is a sense that the episode is very clearly establishing rules and plot points that will come into play later in the run. Anomaly not only explains why mining for trellium-D is such a profitable enterprise; explaining that ships without it are susceptible to all sorts of strange distortions to the laws of physics. Anomaly also introduces the spheres, strange structures that will become a key part of the third season’s mythology.

A good man goes to war...

A good man goes to war…

The show is also marking out ground for later exploration. Anomaly becomes a lot more potent in hindsight, with various decisions here reversed in later episodes. In Anomaly, Archer is a victim of piracy; in Damage, he is forced to commit piracy. In Anomaly, Archer tortures a prisoner in order to procure information that he needs; in Countdown, Hoshi is tortured by Dolim in order to procure information that he needs. It is not entirely clear whether these plot beats were figured out ahead of time, but – like the destroyed Xindi home world in The Xindi – they lend the third season a nice sense of moral symmetry.

Most interestingly – and, perhaps, most pointedly – Anomaly represents a clear return to two very early episodes of the first season. The script of Anomaly touches quite overtly on plot points from Fight or Flight and Strange New World. In some ways, it could be seen as a belated do-over.

Sparks fly...

Sparks fly…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Bounty (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Just when it seemed like Star Trek: Enterprise was on a roll, it produces Bounty.

To be fair to writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong, and showrunners Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, Bounty has all the makings of a network-mandated episodes. It is easy to see the stock plot elements manufactured from a checklist provided by the network. T’Pol in her underwear! Space battles! Klingons! The script also demonstrates a clear reluctance about some of these elements, as uncomfortable to be making Bounty as the viewers are to be watching it.

An enlightening experience?

An enlightening experience?

It is perhaps telling that Bounty was buried as the second half of a “double feature” with First Flight on initial broadcast. Not a feature-length adventure or a two-part episode, the scheduling of Bounty seems a little conspicuous, as if everyone involved is trying to get it out of the way as quickly and quietly as possible. Viewers watching UPN on 14th May 2003 would have tuned in for First Flight as usual. If they were lucky, they simply tuned out afterwards and returned to watch The Expanse a week later.

It is a much smoother transition from First Flight to The Expanse, but that does little to justify Bounty. The last stretch of the second season has generally done a good job of bidding farewell to a particular style of Star Trek. However, Bounty is an episode the embodies the worst tendencies of Enterprise. Sadly, those tendencies that may not actually be going anywhere.

"You're gonna sit there, and like it."

“You’re gonna sit there, and like it.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Regeneration (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

It seems like a bit of an understatement to describe Regeneration as highly controversial.

The blu ray release of the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise includes two commentaries for the episode, a sure sign that there is a lot to talk about. On a track recorded in 2005, writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong describe the episode as “infamous.” On a track recorded in 2013, John Billingsley describes how certain segments of fandom considered it a “jumping the shark” moment for the show. That last statement illustrates one of the perverse qualities of Star Trek fandom; one would assume that the viewers turned off by Regeneration would have already tuned out with Acquisition.

We are Borg.

We are Borg.

After all, the decision to bring back the Ferengi in Acquisition is hard to explain. Nobody was clamouring for more Ferengi episodes after Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had gone off the air. Outside of Deep Space Nine, the most enduring impression of the Ferengi was that they had begun their life as “villains that didn’t quite work” and bad quickly been transformed into “comic relief that didn’t quite work.” As such, it is hard to account for the decision to bend continuity in order to introduce the Ferengi into the first season of a prequel show designed to escape the baggage of the larger Star Trek franchise.

On the other hand, it made a great deal of sense to bring back the Borg. After all, the Borg were one of the few Star Trek aliens created after 1969 to make a genuine impression on popular culture. The Borg will never be as iconic as Klingons or Vulcans, but they will always be more iconic than Cardassians or Bajorans. They were also stars of the best-loved Star Trek movie starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg are a big deal; there is a reason that Star Trek: Voyager ran them into the ground.

"Assimilate this!"

“Assimilate this!”

It is no wonder that the Borg are frequently cited in discussions around the future of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. Asked if the creative team would consider bringing the Borg to the rebooted twenty-third century, Roberto Orci answered, “I think we would think about it.” Damon Lindelof was even blunter in his assessment, “You can’t talk about Trek and not talk about the Borg.” While they have undoubtedly been over-exposed and over-used since they first appeared in Q Who?, the Borg are the most distinctive and most successful addition to the Star Trek mythos outside the classic show.

While common sense and experience seemed to weigh against bringing back the Ferengi in Acquisition, it seems that continuity is the only thing holding the Borg back from making an appearance on Enterprise. That said, Sussman and Strong find a clever way around that issue, by remembering the suggestion in Broken Bow that Enterprise is as much a sequel to Star Trek: First Contact as a prequel to the rest of the Star Trek universe.

"Oh no, Cap'n, they've discovered the mood lightin' settin'."

“Oh no, Cap’n, they’ve discovered the mood lightin’ settin’.”

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