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Star Trek: Voyager – Course: Oblivion (Review)

Course: Oblivion is a fantastic piece of television, in large part because of how strange and surreal it feels. Like Distant Origin or Living Witness, it is an episode that demonstrates how effective Star Trek: Voyager can be, once it is willing to push itself beyond the template of familiar Star Trek storytelling. Course: Oblivion is a staggeringly weird piece of television, a bottle episode filmed with the primary cast on standing sets, but which only features the briefest of appearances from the regular characters.

More than that, Course: Oblivion effectively weaponises many of the long-standing weaknesses and clichés associated with the storytelling on Voyager. It is the very definition of a “reset” button episode, in that the events (and the ending) of the episode are both catastrophic in scale and utterly inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. In some ways, Course: Oblivion is the quintessential Voyager episode, distilling the destruction of Voyager and the death of Janeway into a tragedy with absolutely no repercussions.

‘Til death do us…

Voyager could often feel generic and disconnected, a show without a unique identity. In many ways, Course: Oblivion is very unique to Voyager in that it builds those core ideas into the very fabric of the episode, constructing an episode that reflects Voyager‘s identity by channeling its identity crisis. As with various other episodes of the fifth season, like Night and TimelessCourse: Oblivion builds a meta-text around the anxieties rippling through Voyager at this point in the run.

However, Course: Oblivion is more than just an effective illustration of Voyager‘s storytelling tropes and unique sensibility. Course: Oblivion is also an episode that taps into a lot of the anxieties bleeding through the zeitgeist at the turn of the millennium. Voyager was undoubtedly a television of its time, and tended to reflect the existential paranoia of the nineties. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to grapple with a person’s own unreality, to wrestle with an existence where meaning no longer exists, and everything is illusory.

“… well, that was quicker than expected.”

Even beyond those themes that anchor Course: Oblivion is the cultural landscape of the late nineties, the episode ties back into broader Star Trek themes. One of the great strengths of the Star Trek franchise is the freedom to use a science-fiction template to explore big questions. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to face death, in a manner very distinct from the way that television usually treats death. The death in Course: Oblivion is not meaningful or epic or heroic. The death in Course: Oblivion is inevitable decay, a murmur in an infinite void.

The result is one of the most striking and effective episodes that Voyager ever produced, and easily the most ambitious episode of the fifth season as a whole.

Face off.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Infinite Regress (Review)

As with One from late in the fourth season, Infinite Regress is an episode that uses Seven of Nine’s cybernetic mind as a vehicle for psychological horror.

Producer Brannon Braga has always been interested in constructing psychological thrillers within the science-fiction framework of Star Trek, using the franchise’s pseudo-science trappings as a way to explore themes of mental deterioration or disconnect. Frame of Mind is probably the first example, but there are many others. Braga is very interested in having his characters question the nature of their reality, of trapping them within their own minds, of undercutting their sense of self. That interest bled into the shows around him.

Self-image.

Star Trek: Voyager presented the writers with an artificial computer-generated character who could more readily combine the writer’s fascination with psychological thrillers and the franchise’s engagement with advanced technology. The EMH was a character whose mind was comprised entirely of computer protocols and software code. His mind could be unfurled on monitors, buffered in memory, fragmented on the hard drive. Episodes like Projections, The Swarm and Darkling suggested a character prone to psychosis, reinforced by Dejaren’s breakdown in Revulsion.

However, the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast in Scorpion, Part II seemed to provide the the Voyager writers (and Braga in particular) with character who could function as an even more effective vehicle for these sorts of stories. Seven is a fusion of human and machine, an organic brain augmented by technological components. She is a character whose mind is in many ways already divided, whose sense of self is understandably fragile. As such, Seven is ideally suited to stories like Infinite Regress.

Mind your step.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Image in the Sand (Review)

There is an endearing sense of symmetry to the seventh season premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The writers who worked on the show have been quite candid about their creative process. In particular, most of the production team would acknowledge that the show was heavily improvised rather than planned in advance. While the creators had a sense of the direction in which they wanted to move, they did not have a clear destination in mind until quite late in the journey. This was quite obvious looking at a number of the strange narrative detours that the arc took, most notably Gul Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light.

A Time to Sands.

At the same time, as the seventh season began, it seemed like the writers working on Deep Space Nine had a much stronger idea of how they wanted the series to come to a close. Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a very clever structural choice for the seventh season premiere. They exist at once as echoes of the arc that opened the sixth season and as preludes to the story that would conclude the seventh. They exist as bookends to these two chapters of the larger series, feeling almost like the exact midpoint of a larger story.

Positioned approximately half-way between the epic six-episode arc that opened the sixth season and the sprawling ten-episode narrative that would draw down the curtain at the end of the seventh season, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a much smaller affair. However, they are still well-observed and well-written, covering a lot of thematic and narrative ground in a way that contextualises what come before and sets up what will follow.

“Play it again, Sisko.”

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Millennium (IDW) #1-5 (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the more interesting aspects of IDW holding the X-Files license has been watching the company try to franchise the brand.

During the production of the show, Chris Carter was notably wary of stretching the show’s brand. He turned down lucrative branding opportunities because he didn’t want to see his show attached to “doo-dads” and “gee-haws.” It was an understandable impulse. When Fox approached Carter to launch a new show during the third season of The X-Files, he did not build a spin-off in the conventional sense. He did not launch The X-Files: Miami or The X-Files: New Orleans, although Fox might have wanted something like that.

Time goes by so slowly... And time can do so much...

Time goes by so slowly…
And time can do so much…

When Carter launched Millennium, he was adamant that it should stand on its own two feet. Carter wanted the show “to succeed on its own terms, rather than on some kind of gimmick.” There were a few sly nods in episodes like Lamentation, but it mostly stood on its own two feet. Glen Morgan and James Wong got a little bit more adventurous in the second season, with Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” and The Time is Now offering clear crossover of supporting cast. However, Frank Black would not meet Mulder and Scully until Millennium, after his show was cancelled.

To be fair to Carter, there is a sense that the later mellowed when it came to the concept of a broader shared universe. During the third season of Millennium, Carter acknowledged that he had been throwing around ideas for a crossover between The X-Files and Millennium. Although his short-lived Harsh Realm never directly crossed over with any of his other work, it is possible that the series was cancelled before Carter had the opportunity; he has talked about having plans to bring Mulder and Scully into Harsh Realm.

Father of the year...

Father of the year…

Carter’s fourth television series, The Lone Gunmen, was by all accounts a fairly conventional spin-off of The X-Files. It focused on three characters who originated (and continued to guest star) on The X-Files. It featured a major guest appearance from Mitch Pileggi as Walter Skinner in The Lying Game. It featured a cameo from David Duchovny in All About Yves. It was perhaps the most conventional piece of franchise-building in the history of Ten Thirteen, with characters and concepts moving freely between shows.

However, it should also be noted that Carter was a lot less involved in the day-to-day running of The Lone Gunmen as compared to Millennium or Harsh Realm. Carter created the show, but the management of the series was left to the trio of Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban. Carter was only credited as writer on two of the show’s thirteen episodes, The Pilot and Three Men and a Smoking Diaper. It seems fair to say that Carter was an executive producer not particularly interested in building a shared universe as modern audiences understand it.

By Jordan!

By Jordan!

This is part of what is so intriguing about watching IDW trying to build a brand around their X-Files license. The company is very interested in turning the show into a much more tightly interwoven shared universe. Millennium is proof of that, a five-issue miniseries focusing on Frank Black that consciously builds off The X-Files to relaunch the cult nineties television series. In many ways, it represents a truer crossover between The X-Files and Millennium than that infamous seventh season episode.

Millennium is very much integrated into a shared Ten Thirteen universe.

We all have our demons.

We all have our demons.

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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) #16-17 – Immaculate (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Immaculate is perhaps most notable for reintroducing the character of Frank Black.

One of the more interesting ironies of Millennium is the fact that show had a smaller fanbase than The X-Files, but also a much more vocal campaign to resurrect the series. Outside of a few die-hards eagerly hoping for a third film, X-Files fans had only really begun to clamour for the series to return following the hype around the show’s twentieth anniversary. In contrast, fans of Millennium had been angling for a continuation of their beloved series for years in a number of high-profile ventures.

Familiar demons...

Familiar demons…

Perhaps the most obvious of these campaigns was the Back to Frank Black campaign, which was even endorsed by series star Lance Henriksen providing an introductory voiceover to the Millennium Group Session podcasts urging listeners that “the time is now” and which put out a wonderful series of critical essays and interviews concerning the series in October 2012. As recently as August 2015, they were organising a campaign to bring a revival to Netflix. When the return of The X-Files was announced, one of the big recurring questions was “what about Frank Black?”

As such, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before Frank Black turned up in IDW’s monthly X-Files comic book series.

Baby on board.

Baby on board.

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The X-Files – Release (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Release is a breath of fresh air.

There are problems with the episode, serious problems. The plotting is incredibly loose, with Release relying upon a series of incredible contrivances even once you get past the supernaturally-gifted crime-solver who only joined the FBI so he could solve a murder that happens to connect back to Luke Doggett. At best, Release is clumsy and inelegant. At worst, it makes absolutely no sense. More than that, there is the question of whether or not the episode is actually necessary. Does The X-Files actually need to resolve the murder of Luke Doggett?

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

These are fairly sizable and fundamental problems. There is no getting around them. However, Release offsets those problems by being a spectacularly-produced piece of television. Everything works, from Robert Patrick’s performance to Mark Snow’s piano-heavy score to Kim Manner’s stylised direction. Release is a reminder of just how sleek and well-oiled The X-Files could be. That is quite a relief after the triple whammy of Scary Monsters, Jump the Shark and William. Release is a good episode on its own terms; in context, it is a masterpiece.

It also helps that Release feels like the first attempt to give the show actual material closure since Improbable. That closure is thematic rather than literal, with the mystery of Luke Doggett’s death serving as a vehicle through which the show might finally resolve some of its own lingering threads. In the case of Release, the show is tidying away the strands that have been woven into the fabric of The X-Files from the beginning; strands that paid homage to Silence of the Lambs and gave birth to Millennium. Release bids farewell to the forensic side of The X-Files.

The old man and the sea...

The old man and the sea…

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The X-Files 103: Ten Spin-Off/Tie-In Stories

Next week sees the release of The X-Files on blu ray for the first time, just over a month before the new six-episode series premieres on Fox in January. We’re running daily reviews of the show (and its spin-offs) between now and the end of the year, but we thought it might be worth compiling some guides for newer viewers who are looking to experience the length and breadth of what The X-Files has to offer. Every day this week, we’ll be publishing one quick list of recommended stories every day, that should offer a good place to start for those looking to dive into the show.

Although the bulk of discussion around and attention paid to The X-Files focuses on the two-hundred-and-two episodes (and two movies) tied to the series itself, it is worth commenting on the rich world of spin-offs and tie-ins that Chris Carter and his production team built up around the show. The X-Files was not just a nineties television show, it was a multimedia phenomenon. However, these aspects of the show are frequently overlooked in discussions of the show’s legacy and cultural impact.

xfiles-millennium33

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