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Star Trek – The Paradise Syndrome (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

As with Elaan of Troyius, it feels like The Paradise Syndrome casts an awfully long shadow for such a simply awful episode.

Much like Elaan of Troyius before it, The Paradise Syndrome marks out what will become a particular subgenre of Star Trek episode. To be fair, Elaan of Troyius had a much greater influence; it demonstrated that the basic “Enterprise ferries diplomats” plot from Journey to Babel was something that could be repeated, throwing a healthy helping of “our hero falls for an alien princess” into the mix. In contrast, the basic template defined by The Paradise Syndrome is a lot more specific.

Going Native American.

Going Native American.

The Paradise Syndrome effectively posits a “what if…?”, wondering what might happen if Kirk gave up adventuring to settle down into a more mundane existence. It is an idea that Star Trek: The Next Generation would revisit to much greater effect in The Inner Light. It is also the basic template employed by Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II during the final season of Star Trek: Voyager. It is very rare to point to Voyager and argue that it executed an idea much better than the original Star Trek, but this is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

The Paradise Syndrome is also (and unavoidably) a clumsy racist misfire of an episode.

"That'll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better."

“That’ll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tattoo (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.

Tattoo is another example of the second season Star Trek: Voyager doubling down on elements that did not work in the first season.

Episodes like The Cloud and Cathexis had suggested that Chakotay might be a problematic character for the show. After all, Chakotay was the first Native American lead character to appear in the franchise, but he was played by a Mexican-American actor. More than that, the first season seemed to draw from an awkward collection of tropes and clichés in its depiction of Chakotay’s culture. The show declined to anchor Chakotay in a single specific Native American cultural tradition, instead drawing from a rake of familiar shallow iconography.

"Oh, here we go again..."

“Oh, here we go again…”

Chakotay didn’t really work in the first season. The problem is that Michael Piller seemed reluctant to accept that Chakotay’s Native American spirituality was borderline racist and offensive. So Tattoo returns to that particular well, with a much greater commitment to patronising and exploiting Native American culture. Exploring the Delta Quadrant, Chakotay comes across a seemingly abandoned moon that turns out to be the home of an ancient alien culture that made contact with Chakotay’s ancestors forty-five thousand years ago.

These aliens were responsible for shaping and molding Native American culture, for putting those groups in closer communion with the land and for fostering a purer spirituality. Not only is the main alien played by white actor Richard Fancy, the make-up design on these “Sky Spirits” emphasises their whiteness. So Tattoo becomes a story about how Native American culture essentially came from a bunch of super-advanced white people. It is astounding that nobody seemed to stop and think about the episode on the way to the screen.

"Oh, hey. That's a new level of offensiveness."

“Oh, hey. That’s a new level of offensiveness.”

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Harsh Realm – Cincinnati (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Cincinnati finally gives Terry O’Quinn something to do.

Despite the fact that O’Quinn is credited as a series regular on Harsh Realm, he has appeared about as frequently in the first nine episodes as he did during the equivalent episodes of Millennium. With his “and…” credit at the end of the opening title sequence, it felt like O’Quinn might be forgotten by the show. His face might appear on posters and propaganda, but he was not going to play a particularly dynamic role in the events of the first season. After all, Hobbes is trying to assassinate Santiago; there are reasons why the writers would want to keep them separate.

Walk softly, but carry a big stick...

Walk softly, but carry a big stick…

Nevertheless, Cincinnati is a story that unfolds from Santiago’s perspective. Hobbes and Pinochio play a major part in unfolding events, but they largely reacting. The bulk of Cincinnati concerns a conflict between Santiago’s forces and the Native American population of Ohio. When a military strike goes horribly wrong, Santiago is forced to survive on his own terms. He infiltrates the eponymous city and sets about furthering his own agenda with ruthless efficiency.

A lot of Cincinnati is pure nonsense; the plot is barely held together by contrivance and coincidence, hinging on a final twist that manages to be both obvious and completely unearned. At the same time, it is hard to hate an episode that is carried by Terry O’Quinn and offers the actor a chance to sink his teeth into a juicy part.

It's all in ruins...

It’s all in ruins…

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Millennium – A Single Blade of Grass (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.

A Single Blade of Grass is one of those episodes of television that skirts a line. It is very much a companion to “subculture” episodes of The X-Files, shows that would see our white heroes wading into the world of an ethnic minority – be the Haitian refugees in Fresh Bones, Chinatown in Hell Money, African immigrants in Teliko or Mexican-Americans in El Mundo Gira. In the case of A Single Blade of Grass, Frank Black is wandering into the world of Native Americans in New York.

It goes without saying that these sorts of episodes have to be very careful. Both Millennium and The X-Files are very white television shows – they have exclusively white primary casts, and the vast majority of their supporting cast are also white. (Also, most of the writers’ rooms.) As such, telling a story about a subculture can be very tricky – it is easy to seem shallow or condescending, trite or exploitative. It is worth noting that some of the biggest misfires on The X-Files occurred when the production team got this horribly wrong – Excelsis Dei, Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira, Badlaa.

Burial mask...

Burial mask…

It is very easy to get caught up in mysticising and fetishising the Other, which can become quite problematic when “the Other” corresponds to a real-life minority that have – historically speaking – never been treated particularly well by those in authority. As such, A Single Blade of Grass feels like a very risky and very difficult story, particularly for a show that was already struggling in the ratings and trying to gain some traction with audiences. A Single Blade of Grass has the potential to go spectacularly wrong in places, and it is to the credit of all involved that it (mostly) doesn’t.

Then again, this is a large part of the appeal of the second season of Millennium – what makes even the year’s failures seem compelling in their own eccentric way. There is a sense that the second season of Millennium is completely unfazed by the possibility of failure, and so commits completely to what it wants to do. While A Single Blade of Grass might be a little muddled and unfocused in places, it retains a raw energy that makes for compelling viewing.

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds...

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds…

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The X-Files – The Blessing Way (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The Blessing Way is the first mythology episode of The X-Files that doesn’t really work.

And it doesn’t really work for a lot of the same reasons that some of the later mythology episodes don’t really work. Its pacing is terrible. It wallows in new age mysticism, allocating characters thoughtful monologues that awkwardly state themes and render subtext as supratext. It plays into the deification of Mulder, trying to bend Mulder’s story to fit into an archetypal “chosen one” narrative. More than that, it is very clearly a holding pattern, an effort to eat up time without moving forward.

Wiping it all out...

Wiping it all out…

However, despite the fact that The Blessing Way really doesn’t work, it is still a fascinating episode. It’s a wonderful demonstration of how The X-Files has developed a fleshed-out world inhabited by compelling characters. The best moments in The Blessing Way are character-focused, with Skinner caught between his duty to the government and his loyalty to his agents, the Cigarette-Smoking Man revealed to be middle-management at best, and the implication that even vast sinister government conspiracies are hostage to chaos.

The Blessing Way is an oddity, a rather strange piece of television that is almost endearing in its stubborn refusal to deliver what the audience wants and expects. That doesn’t make it good, but it does make it interesting.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Cathexis (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Cathexis has a vaguely interesting premise, but it gets a little bit too caught up in science-fiction high concepts and New Age mysticism.

Once again, there’s a sense that the wrong writer has been assigned the wrong brief. The New Age spirituality elements of Chakotay’s character were largely championed by Michael Piller; the “romantic period mystery” story for Janeway clearly comes from Jeri Taylor. The only part of Cathexis that clearly comes from credited writer Brannon Braga is the somewhat generic Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot line – and, as such, it seems to be the only thread in which Braga is particularly interested.

So we get a bunch of half-hearted New Age stuff unfolding, with Chakotay’s wandering spirit represented by a camera with a blurry filter swooping through familiar sets. Once again, Chakotay’s Native American heritage becomes a launching pad for some ill-advised mysticism and exoticism, which Cathexis never even bothers trying to explain.

Frankly, I'm surprised Tuvok put up with this for so long...

Frankly, I’m surprised Tuvok put up with this for so long…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Emanations (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Emanations has a pretty effective set-up and solid premise. It is very clearly one of Star Trek: Voyager‘s “planet of the week” stories – like the show directly before it and the show directly following it – but it’s build around some vaguely interesting ideas. It’s very clearly an episode designed to function as social commentary in the grand Star Trek tradition, hitting on big ideas and bold concepts.

Unfortunately, it’s not the type of script that Brannon Braga is best suited to handle. It doesn’t feel so much an exploration of an important issue as a social treatise. It’s simplistic and heavy-handed while dealing with ideas that require a bit of nuance and sophistication. It feels under-developed, contrived and a little shallow. Despite an attempt at ambiguity in its closing scene, it feels like an episode driven primarily by an agenda rather than a strong story.

Emanations is a misfire, another example of the weird tendency in the first season of Voyager to assign the wrong writers to the wrong scripts.

Harry really got wrapped up in local culture...

Harry really got wrapped up in local culture…

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