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Star Trek: Voyager – Nightingale (Review)

During the production of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, producer Michael Piller laid down a template for Star Trek storytelling that became a large (and underrated) part of the series’ successful. Following on from the unfocused and clumsy first two seasons, Piller advocated from a strong character-driven storytelling sensibility, advocating for a narrative structure whereby each episode would reveal or inform something interesting about a given character, quite apart from any phenomenon of the week or interesting alien species.

It was a template that was so sturdy that Piller himself could open the season by applying it to Wesley Crusher in Evolution. Ronald D. Moore was perhaps the first writer to really understand the appeal of the structure, applying it to Worf in The Bonding and Sins of the Father. Even when episodes weren’t about the main characters, they still offered some insight. Tin Man, Déjà Q and The Defector were both episodes focused on a guest star, but that guest star was largely seen through Data’s eyes.

Captain Kim.

There were stories that didn’t adhere to this template. Often, like in Hollow Pursuits and Yesterday’s Enterprise, they focused on a guest star rather than the leads. However, these episodes were the exception that proved the rule. Even the less successful episodes of the season, like A Matter of Perspective or Ménage à Troi were still elevated above the troubled first and second seasons by this attention to character-driven storytelling. Piller set a template that lasted for the next four seasons, and beyond.

In the middle seasons of Star Trek: Voyager, there was a tension between this template and the demands of contemporary television. The writing staff on Voyager understood the basic rhythms and structure of the template that Piller established, and kept applying it after his departure following Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. Stories like Nemesis and Timeless found a way to apply that template to even neglected characters like Chakotay and Kim. The only issue was that the template felt increasingly outdated.

He’s (Nee)lixed.

Modern television was moving on. The X-Files and Babylon 5 were embracing sprawling epic television storytelling. Television series like The Sopranos and Oz were adopting a more novelistic approach to the medium. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was consciously moving away from self-contained episodes in favour of longer-form storytelling, most notably the six-parter that ran from A Time to Stand through to Sacrifice of Angels. There was a sense that, even applied skillfully and correctly, the Piller template reflected an older mode of television storytelling.

One of the big issues with the seventh season of Voyager is a palpable feeling that even this foundational block of Star Trek storytelling dating back to The Next Generation has begun to erode. The seventh season of Voyager is packed with stories that look and feel loosely that familiar Piller template, broad narratives focusing on individual characters and big ideas wherein the characters develop or discover something about themselves. However, these episodes also tend to look like they were constructed from a faded photocopy of that classic blueprint.

In-tractor-able.

This is reflected in the broad “Star-Trek-iness” of stories like Drive or Critical Care, episodes that gesture toward social commentary while working hard to avoid actually saying anything potentially engaging. It is also reflected in character-driven episodes like Imperfection or Body and Soul, which superficially resemble the template that Piller laid out for telling a good self-contained Star Trek story, but failing to connect all of the pieces in a way that makes any real sense.

Nightingale is perhaps the season’s best example of this, for so many reasons. It is the last Voyager episode to focus on the character of Harry Kim, but returns to what has been his standard character arc since Demon. It has a strong central throughline about the importance of taking command, and the responsibilities of being in authority, but it also never allows these elements to cohere into a strong central thesis. It contains stock Star Trek elements like an alien war and the challenge of non-interference, but doesn’t do anything with them. It is simply a mess.

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Luke Cage – The Basement (Review)

The second season of Luke Cage inevitably battles with the infamous Netflix bloat.

This is a structural problem with a lot of Netflix series, but particularly with the Marvel Netflix fare. It is a result of a combination of factors, from the production team’s commitment to telling a single serialised story in a give season to the need to pad all of these seasons out to fill thirteen episodes. To be fair, certain seasons are more affected by this bloat than others; the first seasons of Iron Fist and The Punisher tell simple stories in extreme slow motion, while the second season of Jessica Jones spends almost half a season building towards the starting point of its own story.

The first season of Luke Cage had its own particular twist on this issue of pacing and padding. The first half of the season flowed relatively smoothly, as reflected in the extremely positive pre-release reviews that praised it as a series that “should rightfully elevate [Cheo Hodari] Coker into the league of television auteurs.” When the entire series was released, reaction was a bit more muted, with a second half of the season that effectively extended a ninety-minute blaxploitation homage into six hour-long episodes filled with stalling tactics and wheel-spinning.

At the end of Manifest, Luke Cage was shot by Willis Stryker, which effectively (and literally) took the lead out of his own show for a three-episode trip to Georgia that lasted through Blowin’ Up the Spot, DWYCK and Take It Personal. To prolong the plot, Cage and Stryker fell into a pattern of attack-and-repeat; Stryker shot Cage with a Judas bullet in both Manifest and Blowing Up the Spot, while Luke forces a confrontation with Stryker in Now You’re Mine, only for the season to stall with an episode about the police chasing Luke in Soliloquy of Chaos before allowing a final fight in You Know My Steez.

That second half of the first season was disastrous, with characters dancing around one another in order to hit a mandated running time, the desperation obvious in the variety of contrivances that prolonged the drama. In contrast, the second season has much great balance and control, never descending to that level of clumsy plotting in order to justify the thirteen-episode season order. At the same time, there are points where the series is obviously stretching itself out in order to make this story last thirteen hours instead of eight.

While still imperfect, the second season of Luke Cage represents a significant improvement.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Thirty Days (Review)

Thirty Days is a fascinating misfire.

Thirty Days is build around a number of interesting ideas. In terms of character, there is the framing device that finds Tom Paris sentenced to spend one month in the brig after an act of crass insubordination, suggesting a relapse into the “bad boy” persona that was largely forgotten after Ex Post Facto, barring the occasional revival for episodes like Vis á Vis. It also hints at questions of discipline on the ship, something around which Star Trek: Voyager has skirted in the past in episodes like Prime Factors and Manoeuvres. There is a compelling story here, somewhere.

Watching Thirty Days can feel like…

In terms of science-fiction plot elements, Thirty Days features the first ocean planet in the history of the Star Trek franchise. That is interesting of itself. What wonders lurk within an ocean world? What would life look like had it never left the sea and set foot on land? There is something decidedly pulpy and magical about a planet that has no surface of which to speak, instead comprised of waves and tides. Even with the flimsiest of plots, this element alone should provide fodder for an exciting installment.

Unfortunately, Thirty Days fumbles both of these interesting elements, falling victim to a recurring issue with the plotting on Voyager. The pacing is awkward, the plot points are under-developed, the framing device is hackneyed. The script for Thirty Days seems far more concerned about hitting the forty-five minute mark than it does with using these elements to tell a compelling story. The result is a bit of a wash.

Water conservation.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tears of the Prophets (Review)

Tears of the Prophets has a number of very good ideas.

The character arc driving the episode is very good, particularly in the context of a finale leading into the final season of the show. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has always been a show more interested in character arcs and long-form storytelling than the other Star Trek shows, so “Benjamin Sisko experiences a loss so great that he resigns his commission” is an organic story beat. It feels like a story that the writers on this show can tell, and a story that fits very comfortably within the grand mythic framework that the writers are trying to construct.

All fired up.

Deep Space Nine has earned a lot of goodwill in this regard, demonstrating a willingness to let stories play out over extended periods and to follow stories through to their natural conclusion. Sisko leaving the station at the end of Tears of the Prophets is not the same as Picard being assimilated at the end of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I or Worf leaving the Enterprise at the end of Redemption, Part I. Any savvy audience member knows that Sisko will return to his post, probably sooner rather than later, but they also trust the show to treat it as more than just a striking cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, Tears of the Prophets is compromised by a number of very poor ideas. Some of those ideas did not originate with the writing staff, their hands forced by outside factors. Ira Steven Behr’s original plans for Tears of the Prophets did not include the death of Jadzia Dax, but the writers had to incorporate that plot element rather late in the cycle. Of course, this does not excuse some of the poor decisions made in how the writers chose to handle that unforeseen plot element, although that was also a result of a number of outside factors.

So Jad to zia you.

However, Tears of the Prophets also leans into some of the more frustrating creative decisions of the sixth season as a whole. The script doubles down on some of the least satisfying elements of Deep Space Nine‘s long-form storytelling, even combining several of these frustrating beats into a central narrative strand of the season finale. Tears of the Prophets combines the generic cartoon villainy of Gul Dukat as suggested at the climax of Waltz and the teaser to Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night with the stock mysticism of the Pah-Wraiths from The Reckoning for a heady ill-judged cocktail.

The result is a somewhat uneven episode, a story with a very strong central character arc that plays to the strengths of the show, but with several supporting elements that indulge the series’ worst impulses.

Funeral for a friend.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Hope and Fear (Review)

Hope and Fear is a reasonably solid conclusion to the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, the episode has a number of very clever ideas. There are a number of creative choices in Hope and Fear that feel entirely appropriate for the final episode of what has been a relatively strong season. Various concepts and ideas are brought back into play, from Janeway’s alliance with the Borg in Scorpion, Part II through to her conversion of Seven of Nine in The Gift and up to the secret coded message from Starfleet suggested in Hunters. It makes sense to bring all of these ideas back into play for the grand finale.

The fourth season comes to a head.

More than that, it makes sense to build the episode around the dynamic between Janeway and Seven. One of the recurring tensions in the fourth season, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, has been the debate about the prominence of Seven of Nine. In the year since she was introduced, Seven has effectively become one of the three most important members of the cast. There is a credible argument to be made that she is the most important member of the cast, an anxiety played out in One. As such, it is logical to build Hope and Fear around Janeway and Seven.

At the same time, there is a certain clumsiness to the plotting of the episode. There is a very rushed quality to the story, which never really takes the time to develop or explore these big revelations and twists. Hope and Fear races towards its conclusion as if it has been sucked into quantum slipstream, a very disorienting and disjointed effect. Certain character arcs feel under-explored, and certain gaps in the plot logic are brushed aside. Hope and Fear feels like a story that deserved a bigger canvas.

The hard cell.

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Daredevil – .380 (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the strongest things that the second season of Daredevil has going for it is the three-act structure.

Pacing and structure can be concerns for Netflix television shows. After all, the distributor works on a completely different model than most television broadcasters. Instead of releasing a series on a week-to-week basis across a period of several months, Netflix releases all of a season at the exact same moment. As such, the focus and goals of a Netflix series are different from that a series developed through more traditional means. Netflix shows are consciously designed to be “binged” rather than to be digested in hour-long chunks.

He's the devil, that one.

He’s the devil, that one.

In some ways, this has seen the erosion of the episode as a functional unit of storytelling. If an episode of a regular television drama simply does not work, then the audience is left with a bad taste in their mouth for a week. If an episode of a Netflix drama does not work, the next episode is right there. In fact, Netflix makes it even easier by automatically moving the viewer to the next episode, meaning it takes more effort not to watch the next episode than it does to just keep going. With that in mind, an individual episode not working is not a deal-breaker.

In some respects, it is disappointing that Netflix has yet to truly embrace the potential of the streaming model. Storytelling that would be unthinkable in a weekly model are easier to work around when it comes to binging. In terms of playing with narrative formating, Aziz Anasari’s Master of None is probably the most ambitious of the “Netflix original” shows; the series bounces between its arc-based storytelling and more standalone pieces. In most cases, Netflix shows only really exploit the potential of the model when it comes to serialising their story.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

That said, there is still some division between how streaming affects the plotting of comedies as compared to dramas. Comedies like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Bojack Horseman seem to adopt a more conservative episodic approach to their episode-to-episode plotting; given that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was moved to Netflix rather late in its production cycle, this makes in a certain amount of sense. Nevertheless, it would appear that the streaming model tends to lean towards a “single story told over [number] hours” approach to drama.

This is not inherently a good thing. One of the bigger issues with streaming dramas remains the attachment to classic television formal conventions, whether it is a set runtime or a predetermined number of episode. Not every story needs to be thirteen episodes, especially not on a streaming service. There is a question as to whether shows like Mad Dogs and Jessica Jones might have been better served with a shorter order. There is also a sense that the demand of telling a single story over a set number of hours leads to stalling and repeating.

Just a regular guy, talkin' about love and punishing.

Just a regular guy, talkin’ about love and punishing.

While a fantastically ambitious show in terms of storytelling and themes, Jessica Jones had an unfortunate habit of running around in circles in order to reach that thirteen-episode count. Early episodes like AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey wasted a lot of time on how to knock Kilgrave out. Kilgrave himself was introduced twice in both AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Kilgrave was captured and escaped no less than three times over the season, in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts.

In many ways, Daredevil is a conventional piece of television drama. Part of that is down to structuring. Daredevil has a stronger sense of episodic storytelling than many contemporary streaming dramas. Within the second seasons, episodes like Guilty as Sin and Seven Minutes in Heaven are held together by internal themes like the idea of perpetual war as it links the season’s two plots and whether various characters are trapped within prisons of their own makings. Care is taken to ensure that something is accomplished between the start and end of a given episode.

Guy talk.

Guy talk.

More than that, the second season takes the idea further and very clearly structures itself into conventional three-act design. The first act introduces Frank Castle and pit him against Matt Murdock, running from Bang to Penny and Dime. The second act introduces Elektra and focuses on Frank Castle’s trial and incarceration, running from Kinbaku to Seven Minutes in Heaven. The third act completes Frank’s origin story while pitting Matt and Elektra against the hand, from The Man in the Box to A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. The structure is very clear.

Unfortunately, .380 marks the point at which that structure begins to fall apart.

There's going to be hell to pay...

There’s going to be hell to pay…

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Daredevil – Guilty as Sin (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Part of what is so infuriating about the second season of Daredevil is that fact that there is a lot of good material here.

The issue is nothing as simple as saying “good ideas, terrible execution”, or anything as trite. There are good ideas that are executed well and bad ideas that are handled with a surprisingly deft touch; there are also good ideas that are needlessly squandered and bad ideas that turn out to be exactly as terrible as they initially appear. It isn’t even that there are clearly discernible unambiguous flaws. Everything is a mix. For all the issues with the writing of the Punisher and Elektra, Jon Bernthal and Elodie Yung do great work with the material afforded to them.

Let us pray...

Let us pray…

The second season of Daredevil is very much a curate’s egg of a television season. There are good bits and bad bits. There is breathtaking ambition and incredible miscalculation in equal measure. The series is not entirely a failure, but it is far from a success. With Guilty as Sin, the show clumsily repositions itself as a morality play about the conflict between good and evil within the soul as Elektra Natchios. However, there is a similar conflict brewing at the heart of the show.

Even in the season’s strongest moments, there are clear weaknesses shining through. Even in the season’s weakest moments, its strongest elements are frequently in play.

Eye see.

Eye see.

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