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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Xindi (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.

Delivering on change is always more difficult than promising change.

The first block of episodes in the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise struggle with the weight of expectation and the sense that the production team have no real idea of how to manage this sort of storytelling. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had consulted with Ira Steven Behr towards the end of the second season, suggesting that they wanted to model the storytelling loosely on the blend of episodic and serialised scripting that Behr oversaw on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It makes sense, as Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek series to really engage with that sort of storytelling.

A primate example of the Xindi...

A primate example of the Xindi…

In hindsight, it seems a shame that the writing room on Deep Space Nine was allowed to disintegrate so thoroughly. Ira Steven Behr, Hans Beimler and Rene Echevarria departed immediately following What You Leave Behind. Ronald D. Moore migrated briefly over to Star Trek: Voyager, but quit quite promptly following creative disagreements with former collaborator Brannon Braga. The veteran writers on Enterprise came from Voyager. Brannon Braga, Mike Sussman, Phyllis Strong and André Bormanis were all writers who had come into their own working on Voyager.

Star Trek: Voyager a show that was incredibly episodic and seemed to actively resist serialisation even more than Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is not a reflection on the production team. Braga had lobbied to expand Year of Hell into a year-long story arc during the fourth season, but his proposal had been rejected. Discussing the Xindi arc, Braga has talked about how he wanted to tell a year-long Star Trek story, and it is telling that one of his post-Star Trek writing assignments was on 24.

The ascent...

The ascent…

Nevertheless, it meant that the writers working on Enterprise faced a sharp learning curve when it came to structuring the third season. The experience accumulated during the arc-building on Deep Space Nine was largely lost to the franchise, and a lot of the early part of the third season sees Enterprise making a number of teething mistakes. The early stretch of the third season struggles to pace itself, and it struggles to integrate stand-alone stories with its larger serialised arc.

The Xindi is a prime example of this, an episode that has a wealth of interesting ideas and great concepts, but one that stumbles in the execution.

Pointing the finger...

Pointing the finger…

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The X-Files – The Pine Bluff Variant (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.

The Pine Bluff Variant is probably John Shiban’s best solo script for The X-Files.

It is the kind of story that the show does very well, a taut conspiracy thriller packed with sharp twists and turns. Not all of those twists and turns make a great deal of sense, but there is an incredible momentum to the episode that keeps it moving forward. John Shiban’s script is beautifully brought to life by Rob Bowman’s direction, with Bowman demonstrating once again why he was the perfect choice to direct The X-Files: Fight the Future. The Pine Bluff Variant is a well-constructed piece of television.

He who hunts monsters...

He who hunts monsters…

It also fits quite comfortably in the context of where the show is at this point in time. The fourth and fifth seasons of The X-Files saw the show really engaging with the dark underbelly of conspiracy culture just as Mulder when through his own dark midnight of the soul. After three seasons of endorsing paranoia and skepticism, The X-Files was ready to deal with the sorts of organised groups that believed in such conspiracies. The Pine Bluff Variant has Mulder infiltrating a militia a few months before the release of Fight the Future would recreate the Oklahoma City Bombing.

It is a thread with which the show had been playing since The Field Where I Died early in the fourth season. The Pine Bluff Variant is the last time that the series pushes these sorts of militia groups to the fore, with Mulder reaffirming and regaining his faith at the climax of Fight the Future. It is a suitably satisfying farewell to this recurring thematic motif.

Fleshing out the threat...

Fleshing out the threat…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Crossing (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.

The Crossing represents a troubling return to form for the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise in a number of ways.

In terms of basic storytelling, the show is back at the point where it is simply throwing Star Trek plots into a blender and serving up a rather unappetising smoothy. The Crossing is packed with familiar Star Trek tropes – it is Return to Tomorrow by the way of Power Play through Cathexis. The idea of non-corporeal entities hijacking living bodies is not particularly novel, and The Crossing really has nothing new to offer in terms of that sort of story. There is no element of The Crossing as fun as Leonard Nimoy’s performance in Return to Tomorrow or the hostage crisis stakes of Power Play.

Here's Trip!

Here’s Trip!

However, even without the feeling of reheated leftovers, The Crossing is a very ugly little story. It reflects the reactionary post-9/11 politics of the show, the sense of isolationism and xenophobia that have become part of the fabric of Enterprise. The Crossing is essentially a fifties horror film repurposed as a post-9/11 cautionary tale about the dangers of trusting people who are not like you. It feels like a pretty solid indication of just how thoroughly Star Trek has lost its way. The decision to just externalise these anxieties in The Expanse is long overdue.

The fact that The Crossing is credited to the two showrunners driving Enterprise is quite worrying, particularly given that it serves to express an uncomfortable subtext running through the season.

Having a gas time...

Having a gas time…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Cease Fire (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 is weird to think that Star Trek was dying in early years of the twenty-first century.

After all, the original series had greatly increased its cultural cachet at the height of the Cold War. The adventures of James Tiberius Kirk offered an optimistic alternative to total nuclear annihilation and a doomsday clock that was rapidly approaching midnight. Logic would suggest that utopian fantasy was all the more essential when contrasted against harsh reality. In fact, it seemed like cynicism and pessimism thrived in the (relatively) peaceful and prosperous decade following the collapse of the Cold War. The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were inescapably products of the nineties.

I'm blue dabba dee dabba dii...

I’m blue dabba dee dabba dii…

So one imagines that the dread and fear that took root in the wake of 9/11 might somehow make the optimism and hope of Star Trek all the more essential. After all, pundits and commentators wasted no time in suggesting that irony and cynicism were passé. Stephen Thompson, editor of The Onion, suggested that the age of irony had ended only a week after the attacks.  Graydon Carter, editor of Variety, observed, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.” In a highly publicised Time article, Roger Rosenblatt rejoiced.

Of course, irony was far from dead, as films like Team America: World Police demonstrated. The Colbert Report became a cultural phenomenon. The Onion is still in business. However, the speed with which these commentators latched on to the idea of the death of irony suggested that the mood had changed perceptibly. Maybe not definitively, maybe not completely, but there was a change in the air. If ever there was a time for the optimism and the utopianism of Star Trek, it would be this particular moment.

"This is the point where everything changed..."

“This is the point where everything changed…”

However, it seemed like 9/11 eroded the franchise’s faith in utopia. Understandably – and perhaps inevitably – Star Trek: Enterprise found itself warped by images and iconography associated with the attacks. The tradition idyllic alien worlds associated with the franchise – visible in early episodes like Strange New World and Civilisation were quickly replaced by landscapes evoking the popular mood – apocalyptic cityscapes of Shadows of P’Jem and Shockwave, Part II, the deserts of Desert Crossing, the militaristic settings of Detained and The Communicator, or even the darkness of Rogue Planet.

It was as if 9/11 had warped the psychological landscape of the Star Trek universe, throwing everything into doubt. Far from responding to that real-world tragedy with optimism and hope, it seemed that Enterprise only lost certainty in itself. Cease Fire is an episode that feels plagued by self-doubt and insecurity, even as it tries to find its way back to the franchise’s trademark idealism. It may not quite find its way back to the path, but it makes a reasonable effort.

It's all in ruins...

It’s all in ruins…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Dawn (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.

Dawn arrives at a very delicate moment in Star Trek history.

Star Trek: Nemesis had hit cinemas the weekend before The Catwalk aired. It had been an immediate and humiliating disaster for Paramount. It arrived in a stuffed Christmas season, amid a relentless onslaught of big budget blockbuster fare – competing for space against Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It was the first Star Trek film not to open at the top of the United States box office, landing second to Maid in Manhattan.

Engineering a solution...

Engineering a solution…

The prognosis for Star Trek as a franchise had not been particularly optimistic for quite some time. The ratings had been in decline since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air. Star Trek: Enterprise was airing on a dying network. Changing management at UPN was less friendly to the franchise than it had been. However, the spectacular failure of Star Trek: Nemesis was perhaps the most public blow the franchise had taken. The critics now had ammunition; the vultures were circling; the franchise was on the ropes for the world to see.

The Catwalk had aired a few days after Nemesis crash-landed, when the franchise was still reeling. The first episode of Star Trek to air in 2003, Dawn was broadcast after the franchise and the public had time to properly process the disaster. It goes without saying that there was a lot of pressure on the episode.

Alien nation...

Alien nation…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Seventh (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.

The Seventh broadcast in early November 2002.

However, production had wrapped on the episode on the 11th of September, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. After the crew finished working on the shoot, they paused to observe a moment of silence in honour of all the lives lost in that attack. That same evening, President George W. Bush would speak about those tragic events in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. It was a very tense and very delicate political and social climate. There was no distance from the atrocity yet.

Public enemy number one...

Public enemy number one…

In January 2002, the United States public still supported intervention in Afghanistan by an overwhelming majority. In October 2002, a survey by the Pew Research Centre would reveal that most Americans supported the idea of war with Iraq, a war that would launch in March 2003. Patriotism surged. In October 2001, the Patriot Act was enacted. In February 2002, the International Olympic Committee asked the Salt Lake Organising Committee to tone down the patriotism at the opening of the winter games.

This was the climate in which The Seventh was produced, an episode about a rogue Vulcan operative who must be tracked down and apprehended for the greater good.

Snow down!

Snow down!

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The X-Files – Kaddish (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Kaddish is the last solo script that Howard Gordon wrote for The X-Files.

The writer would remain part of the writing staff until the end of the fourth season, contributing to scripts like Unrequited or Zero Sum. However, Kaddish would be the last script credited to Howard Gordon alone. So Gordon does not quite get the clean farewell that Darin Morgan got with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or that Glen Morgan and Howard Wong received with Never Again. Instead, Howard Gordon remains a pretty significant presence on the show even after writing his final solo script.

The word made flesh...

The word made flesh…

Nevertheless, Kaddish is packed with a lot of the images and themes associated with Gordon’s work. As with Fresh Bones or Teliko, it is a horror story set within a distinct ethnic community. As with Firewalker or Død Kälm or Grotesque, there is an element of body horror at play. As with Lazarus or Born Again, this is essentially a supernatural revenge story. Kaddish offers a distilled collection of the tropes and signifiers that Gordon helped to define for The X-Files, making it an appropriate final script for the writer.

It helps that Kaddish is a surprisingly sweet and thoughtful little horror story.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

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The X-Files – Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

“No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

– Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History

Light 'em up...

Light ’em up…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Strange New World (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 January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Strange New World is the first episode of Star Trek: Enterprise to come from a writing team other than Brannon Braga and Rick Berman. Berman and Braga would dominate the writing credits for the first season. Even when the final teleplay was credited to another writer or writing team, there was often a “story by” credit given to Berman and Braga. Braga himself has conceded that he essentially re-wrote all of the episodes of the first season.

Still, Strange New World is credited to the writing team of Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong. Both had worked on Star Trek: Voyager before migrated to Star Trek: Enterprise along with André Bormanis. Sussman had pitched the story for Meld and worked on a number of solo stories and scripts before teaming with Strong on the seventh and final season of the show. The two would remain a writing team for the first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise, hitting their stride with some of the strongest episodes of the troubled second season.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

Strange New World is an interesting début for the pair. On the hand, it is a story that celebrates the unique place of Star Trek: Enterprise in the Star Trek pantheon. It’s a story about how great it must be to set foot on an alien planet, and how wondrous it must be to breath air from outside our atmosphere. With its emphasis on shuttlepods and primitive transporters, it does remain relatively true to the prequel premise of Enterprise.

On the other hand, Strange New World is a very familiar Star Trek template. Indeed, it’s a very familiar first season template. It’s the episode where the crew of the ship are exposed to some strange outside force that makes them all act out of character. It’s something of a Star Trek standard. The original Star Trek had The Naked Time and Star Trek: The Next Generation had The Naked Now, while Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had both Babel and Dramatis Personae. In many ways, Strange New World feels like a familiar old story.

Strange yellow daisy fields forever...

Strange yellow daisy fields forever…

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The X-Files – Wetwired (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.

Wetwired is an oddity.

It is the penultimate episode of the third season, written by special effects supervisor Matt Beck. It is very much a conspiracy episode, albeit one lacking any real sense of forward moment and with only the loosest thematic ties to the rest of the show’s mythology. Unlike – say – Soft Light, this is not simply a “monster of the week” story with elements of the mythology grafted in. The show has largely move past those, which is why Avatar felt so weird.

More like

More like “terror vision”, am I right?

Instead, Wetwired is that strangest of government conspiracy stories. It is an episode dedicated almost exclusively to shady goings-on at the highest levels of government, but with no mention or inference of aliens or other sinister long-term plots. Wetwired stands out as something strange and hard to place; perhaps its closest analogue is The Pine Bluff Variant from towards the end of the fifth season.

The result is an oddity that is a little uneven and disjointed, an episode packed with clever ideas and concepts, but difficulty connecting them to each other.

Scully has had it with Mulder's quips about her driving...

Scully has had it with Mulder’s quips about her driving…

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