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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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The Lone Gunmen – Eine Kleine Frohike (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

With Eine Kleine Frohike, the first season of The Lone Gunmen is still in its teething phase.

There is a sense that the writers are still finding the show’s voice and struggling to get the tone right, while also trying to figure out how to structure an episode and what to do with the two new characters. Eine Kleine Frohike is messy and disjointed, but that is to be expected three episodes into the first season of an hour-long comedy. The first season of any show will inevitably be a bit rough; it is very rare for a television series to emerge from its production team fully formed.

Eich bin ein Frohike...

Eich bin ein Frohike…

At the same time, there are a few things that Eine Kleine Frohike does quite well, with John Shiban honing in on a few of the show’s strengths. Most obviously, Eine Kleine Frohike positions Frohike as the heart of the leading trio. Byers has always been the idealist of the bunch, but Frohike has a fundamental (and perhaps unlikely) dignity that makes him a solid foundation for an episode like this. Indeed, the best scene in Eine Kleine Frohike uses Frohike’s humanity to forge a connection with a guest character who otherwise seems like a joke.

Eine Kleine Frohike is too disjointed to really work, but it does represent a clear step forward for the show.

The son also rises...

The son also rises…

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Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived (Review)

Can’t we share? Isn’t that what robbery is all about?

– the Doctor on redistribution of wealth

The Woman Who Lived adopts the same structure as The Girl Who Died, basically grafting a fairly generic alien invasion narrative on to a more character-driven story. It is an approach that worked very well for Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, but it admittedly works a little less smoothly this time around.

The Girl Who Died had the luxury of some very generic antagonists posing a very generic threat to a very generic village populated (for the most part) with fairly generic characters. Against this backdrop, there was room to develop not only the character of Ashidlr, but also to flesh out the perspective of the Twelfth Doctor and Clara. The stakes weren’t particularly high in the context of Doctor Who, and the resolution was decidedly goofy. But that was the thrill.

Okay, now Peter Capaldi is just showing off...

Okay, now Peter Capaldi is just showing off…

The Woman Who Lived is decidedly heavier in tone and content. This is not to suggest that the alien threat at the heart of the episode is any more substantial or nuanced. There is an alien emissary plotting to open a dimensional portal so that his buddies can harvest the Earth for their own sinister purpose. This is, if anything, even more generic than the Mire’s plot to harvest testosterone. The problem is that the script clutters everything up, adding betrayals and macguffins and mythos that add little of value.

It is not as if the convolutions of the generic alien invasion plot exist to balance a lighter character-driven story. If anything, the meat of Ashidlr’s character arc is to be found in The Woman Who Lived, as she learns to cope with the mixed blessing of immortality. The Woman Who Lived certainly gives Maisie Williams more to do. So The Woman Who Lived has a lot more going on than The Girl Who Died, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Candle in the wind...

Candle in the wind…

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Non-Review Review: Mr. Holmes

Memory is a tricky thing, particularly as distinct from history. History often occurs as a sequence of events, a laundry list and cause and effect and happenstance. Memory is the chord that we use to tie that all together, the narrative that we weave through these isolated events. Mr. Holmes is an exploration of the gulf as it exists between the two concepts, following an ageing Sherlock Holmes as he attempts to piece together his own faded memory from facts and evidence scattered around.

Adapted from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, writer Jeffrey Hatcher and director Bill Condon position Holmes’ famous deductive prowess as a clever metaphor. Holmes’ ability to effortless build random strands of information into cohesive theories and explanations is set against two rather unconventional targets. As his faculties begin to fail him, Holmes tries to reconstruct memory from the few details available to him. At the same time, Holmes struggles with his own difficulties understanding human nature as it exists beneath these subtle hints and clues.

Holmes for Summer...

Private investigations.

Although the publication of A Slight Trick of the Mind predates the development of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ cult adaptation Sherlock, there is considerable thematic overlap between both stories. As with the BBC series, it seems like the Sherlock Holmes of Mr. Holmes is more concerned with the mystery that is other people than with any individual case. The result is a surprisingly (and effectively) low key film that plays more as a meditation on the human condition than as a convention Sherlock Holmes mystery.

There are points where Mr. Holmes does feel a little too heavy-handed or a little too manipulative in its exploration of the eponymous character. However, Condon very clever grounds the film in a beautifully vulnerable central performance from Ian McKellen.

The long walk Holmes...

The long walk Holmes…

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Millennium – 19:19 (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

One of the interesting aspects of the second season of Millennium is just how carefully structured all the chaos actually is.

There is an endearing and infectious randomness to the plotting of episodes like Sense and Antisense or A Single Blade of Grass, with individual episodes often struggling to fit together on an act-by-act basis. However, things become a lot clearer from a distance. Pulling back, it appears quite clear that there is a method to the madness. The episodes in the season – particularly those positioned towards the beginning and the end – each serve a clear purpose in the larger arc of the second season.

Will he die for our sins?

Will he die for our sins?

The first third of the season is very much about establishing concepts that will be of use later in the story. The Beginning and the End removes Frank from the yellow house and starts him on a new journey. Beware of the Dog introduces the Old Man and teases the mythology of the Millennium Group. Monster introduces Lara Means. The Curse of Frank Black gives Frank his long dark midnight of the soul. 19:19 and The Hand of St. Sebastian were the last two episodes in this opening act, and they exist to affirm the show’s cosmology.

Both 19:19 and The Hand of St. Sebastian firmly establish the show’s apocalyptic worldview in a Christian theological framework. 19:19 does this by exploring biblical prophecy and eschatology, while The Hand of St. Sebastian reveals the Millennium Group to be a secret Christian sect who have existed for over a thousand years. Although the show has always taken a lot of its imagery and iconography from Christianity, 19:19 engages explicitly with the idea of biblical prophecy and millennialism.

All part of the plan...

All part of the plan…

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Millennium – Sense and Antisense (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Sense and Antisense is a misfire.

It is an episode with far too much going on, and no time to unpack it all. Sense and Antisense moves like a rocket ship, jumping from one crazy idea to the next crazy idea. It opens with the threat of a viral contagion, but quickly escalates into the realm of conspiracy theories and mind control. It is an episode that is almost impossible to summarise without sounding as crazy as some of the characters populating the narrative. It is unsatisfying and disjointed, but not in a way that makes those sentiments seem part of the plan.

The pupil has become the master...

The pupil has become the master…

At the same time, it is an incredibly ambitious misfire. The biggest problem with Sense and Antisense is that it tries to cram too much in there. It is constructed almost writer Chip Johannessen tried to condense down contemporary conspiracy theory into a single forty-five minute story that winds up connecting the Department of Energy to the Rwandan Genocide. There is a breathless enthusiasm to all this that would make Fox Mulder blush. As much as Sense and Antisense doesn’t work, it is hard not to admire it’s sheer gumption.

The second season of Millennium might not be the most consistent season in the history of the medium, but even its failures are bold and energetic. Sense and Antisense is not The Curse of Frank Black, Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or Luminary, but it is a far cry from something like Unrequited, Synchrony or Schizogeny.

A stain on the record...

A stain on the record…

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Millennium – Beware of the Dog (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Beware of the Dog opens with the shot of the same comet discussed at the start of The Beginning and the End, just in case viewers thought that The Beginning and the End was somehow a fluke or a deviation. The Beginning and the End was not a freak occurrence, it was not some random divergence from the rest of Millennium. It was very much a new beginning for the series, harking in a bold new direction utterly unlike that marked out by The Pilot. The second season of Millennium was a new breed of animal.

And so a lot of Beware of the Dog is devoted to reinforcing this new direction – convincing the viewers at home that Millennium had reinvented itself from the ground up. Part of what is interesting about Beware of the Dog is the way that the basic structure and beats of the episode hark back to the formula and themes of the first season, but in a way that makes it quite clear that things have changed. Beware of the Dog embraces the pulpy absurdity of a show about millennial fears and anxieties, about the nature of good and evil in the world.

Call of the wild...

Call of the wild…

Beware of the Dog is a very weird piece of television. It is resoundingly and unapologetically odd. It is nowhere near as quirky and eccentric as the second season would become in episodes like The Curse of Frank Black or Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or The Time is Now, but decidedly more surreal than the first season had allowed itself to be – even in episodes like Force Majeure or Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. This is an episode which takes the first season’s “serial killer of the week” format, and substitutes in packs of wild dog.

The result is a piece of television that is quite difficult to classify and quantify, but which feels fresh and exciting. As with The Beginning and the End, there is a playfulness and fun to Beware the Dog that was sorely lacking from extended stretches of the first season. Indeed, it seemed unlikely during the first season that Millennium would ever be classed as “playful” or “fun.” That sense of energy and vibrance imbues the second season with life, helping to carry the show across some admittedly rough episodes later in the year.

Circle of trust...

Circle of trust…

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