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Star Trek: Voyager – Retrospect (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager is a very nineties show. Sometimes that is endearing. Sometimes it is not.

Retrospect is an episode that made a great deal more sense in the context of the nineties. It was still troublesome and reactionary, structuring its central allegory in a way that was deeply problematic. However, Retrospect made a certain amount of sense when considered in light of the McMartin Preschool scandal and the satanic panic driven by regression hypnosis in the early part of the decade. Retrospect is very clearly an attempt to turn that talking point into a twenty-fourth century allegory about witch hunts and persecution.

Assimilate this…

However, there are a number of poor choices made over the course of the episode. The most obvious is build the episode around the character of Seven of Nine. There are any number of reasons why this would be written as a Seven of Nine episode, given that she is the breakout character of the fourth season. However, episodes like The Gift and The Raven have made a conscious effort to portray Seven of Nine as an abuse surviving living with genuine trauma. To put her at the centre of an episode about false allegations of abuse feels ill-judged.

Similarly, the emphasis on the subject of these accusations and his ruined life feels more than a little tone-deaf, even in the context the nineties satanic panic. Retrospect is not an episode about Seven of Nine processing abuse or even coping with distorted memories. It is ultimately the story about how the falsified accusations of abuse (from a character who is a verified abuse victim) can serve to destroy the lives of innocent men. Indeed, the emphasis on the EMH as a proxy for Seven of Nine downplays her own agency in this plot.

Memory Beta.

These aspects are troubling even in the context of an episode about the dangers of using hypnotherapy as the basis of these charges. However, the scandal has slipped from public consciousness in the years since Retrospect was initially broadcast. When the audience hears about women false accusations against men, it evokes the long-standing myth that men are frequent victims of falsified reports about sexual assault that ruin lives. This was creepy and uncomfortable subtext was obvious at time of broadcast, but has only become more pronounced in the years since.

Retrospect would have been a very clumsy and ill-judged allegory in the context of the mid-to-late-nineties. Decades removed from that original context, it seems almost reprehensible.

Blinding flash of the obvious.

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Jessica Jones – AKA WWJD? (Review)

AKA WWJD?, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts represent the emotional climax of Jessica Jones.

The key is in handing the show over to its two strongest performers. Whether together or separately, Krysten Ritter and David Tennant are always engaging to watch. These three episodes push Jessica and Kilgrave into a sequence of tight interactions with one another. The dynamic between the two characters is constantly evolving and reversing, but the two actors are strong enough that every second is riveting television. While AKA Smile brings the season to an exciting close, there is nothing quite as powerful as watching Ritter and Tennant play off one another.

jessicajones-wwjd10a

Jessica Jones has a very good ensemble, with a lot of the roles cast very carefully and most the supporting players sketched out and developed. However, the core of the season is about Jessica Jones confronting and vanquishing Kilgrave, the man who abused her and countless others. It is highly debatable whether Kilgrave needed to be the focus of the season, particularly in the earlier episodes where he didn’t really have much to do, but Jessica Jones has reached the point where it can throw Jessica and Kilgrave into direct confrontation with one another.

AKA WWJD? makes it clear that the confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave will not be physical in nature. This is not a conventional super hero battle; Jessica will not be using her power to smash Kilgrave, and Kilgrave cannot use his mind control to manipulate Jessica. Instead, AKA WWJD? confirms that the confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave will be emotional and psychological in nature; a victim confronting her accuser in pursuit of closure and satisfaction.

jessicajones-wwjd11a

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The X-Files – The Post-Modern Prometheus (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 Post-Modern Prometheus is a decidedly strange little episode.

As the title suggests, it is a stunningly indulgent piece of television. Written and directed by Chris Carter, The Post-Modern Prometheus is an off-beat adventure shot in black-and-white, stylistically referencing everything from James Whale’s Frankenstein to the work of Cher to the iconic dance sequence from Risky Business. The script is chocked full of literary and cinematic references, stitching them together in a way that suggests the monster alluded to in the title of the episode.

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time…

There are more than a few moments of awkwardness in the script. As with Small Potatoes, there seems something a little awkward about a comedy episode that treats a serial rapist as the jumping-off point for a wacky comedy adventure. (“This is a very serious crime,” Mulder asserts at one point, but the script never seems too bothered by it.) There is something quite knee-jerk and reactionary about how The Post-Modern Prometheus plays into the stereotype of scientific development and research as morally questionable by default.

And, yet, despite these fairly sizable problems, there is a lot to love here. It has been suggested that Carter considers The Post-Modern Prometheus as a deeply personal work – it is not hard to see why. The Post-Modern Prometheus is a story obsessed with the act of creating – whether through biological reproduction or scientific experimentation or even by way of storytelling. It is an episode engaging with a story that has long since slipped out of the control of its creator, and which is free to evolve and develop in infinite directions.

Drivin' to Memphis...

Drivin’ to Memphis…

There is a joy and energy to The Post-Modern Prometheus that almost compensates for the more unpleasant aspects of the script. There is a lot of fun to be had here, whether listening to the creature singing along with Cher or simply watching Mulder and Scully dance as they provide a monster with a (literal) storybook ending. There is a sense that The Post-Modern Prometheus was written almost entirely without cynicism, an incredible celebration of Chris Carter’s own thoughts on storytelling and mythmaking.

The Post-Modern Prometheus is perhaps too deeply flawed to be the classic that it desperately wants to be, but it is a fascinating and bold piece of nineties television that demonstrates just how much enthusiasm and verve The X-Files could bring to proceedings when it wanted to.

It is never a happy mob...

Basement dwellers…

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The X-Files – Small Potatoes (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.

Darin Morgan’s absence haunts the fourth season of The X-Files.

According to Frank Spotnitz, Darin Morgan had originally hoped to contribute a script in the middle of the season. Unfortunately, that idea fell through. The scramble to fill that gap in the schedule led to Memento Mori, which ultimately became the centre of the fourth season’s mythology arc, for better or worse. Scully’s cancer arc was just one result of the Darin-Morgan-shaped hole in the fourth season. Small Potatoes is another, the show’s first real “comedy” episode since Morgan departed the staff at the end of the third season.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tail…

Darin Morgan often gets credit for introducing the concept of comedy to The X-Files. That is not entirely fair; Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote Die Hand Die Verletzt shortly before Darin Morgan wrote Humbug. However, Morgan did refine the idea of comedy on The X-Files. Darin Morgan won an Emmy for writing Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, and he still considers Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” to be among the best things that he has ever written.

Despite Morgan’s departure, it was clear that The X-Files could not completely avoid comedy. Once a show has demonstrated that it can do something particularly well, it becomes very difficult to stop doing that thing. Comedy episodes became something of a staple on The X-Files, with the show regularly churning out light-hearted and funny episodes (with varying degrees of success) until the show was finally cancelled after its ninth season. However, there was a long stretch after Morgan departed where the series seemed quite grim. Somebody would have to go first.

The inside, looking out...

The inside, looking out…

So Vince Gilligan stepped up to bat. Gilligan had been on staff for a bout a year at this point. He had quickly established himself as one of the most promising young writers in the room. While his first script for the show – Soft Light – was arguably more interesting than successful, Gilligan enjoyed an incredible hot streak when he joined the staff. Pusher, Unruhe and Paper Hearts are among the best scripts of the third and fourth seasons. With Small Potatoes, he seemed to position himself as the logical successor to Darin Morgan.

Darin Morgan even appears in Small Potatoes to pass the metaphorical baton.

"Here's Mulder!"

“Here’s Mulder!”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Fusion (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.

Fusion is a mess of an episode.

On the one hand, it feels like an attempt to develop that Vulcans as they’ve been portrayed on Star Trek: Enterprise. It’s a clear attempt to justify their behaviour and to suggest that there are reasons that Vulcans eschewed emotions. It also gives some focus and development to T’Pol, a character who has been given very little space to herself so far in this first season. It brings back the relaxed pacing of episodes like Breaking the Ice or Cold Front, soaking in the details rather than driving the plot.

Out, out brief candle...

Out, out brief candle…

On the other hand, there’s a disturbingly reactionary subtext to Fusion. It feels like an even more cynical and mean-spirited version of All the Children Shall Lead or The Way to Eden, a story about how people need to be wary of youthful and experimental subcultures. It’s disappointing that one of the first season’s big T’Pol episodes is basically a rape allegory. And the plot of the episode feels crammed into the last act to make up for the somewhat loose pacing.

Fusion is simply all over the place.

False idols...

False idols…

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The X-Files – Excelsis Dei (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The horror genre is much maligned.

Horror films typically fight harder for recognition than films in many other genres – often finding themselves consigned to the same ghetto as science-fiction or fantasy films. They are less likely to take home major mainstream awards, and it seems like horror films typically have to wait longer for reappraisal. Outside of aficionados, there’s a wariness of the horror genre – a skepticism towards it.

Window of opportunity...

Window of opportunity…

There are a lot of reasons for that. Some of them make sense; some of them don’t. One of the more common assumptions about horror is that the genre is more likely to produce “cheap” or “trashy” entertainment, as opposed to something more profound or insightful. There are, again, lots of reasons for this assumption. Most obviously, there’s the absurd cost-to-profit ratio of cheap terrible horror films that incentivises studios to churn out as many as they can as fast as they can. There’s a reason there’s an absurd number of Saw sequels.

However, that “cheapness” or “trashiness” isn’t just a result of business decisions. There are certain story tropes and narrative techniques that exist within the horror genre that feel like the cheapest sort of thrills. If you want to make an audience uncomfortable, just throw in something one of those trashier elements. As long as the audience squirms in their seats, it doesn’t matter what the implications of your decisions are. After all, your job is to creep them out?

Bitter little pill...

Bitter little pill…

So horror takes all manner of shortcuts, without any real thought as to what those elements actually mean. They are just something that catches the audience off-guard and makes them sit up in their seat. So horror tends to indulge in the worst sorts of racism and sexism as a means of drawing any sort of response from the audience. These tried-and-tested horror staples become effective storytelling shortcuts. The foreign becomes horrific. Conservative sexual morality is enforced with brutality. Rape – literal or metaphorical – is a cheap thrill.

The X-Files struggles with these sorts of issues as it tries to bring horror to television. It occasionally does a very good job. However, there are also times when the series gives into its baser instincts. Excelsis Dei is an absolutely terrible episode, and an example of why the horror genre gets written off by so many people so quickly. It’s a poorly constructed hour of television, one about how old men are perverts, the rape of an under-developed character is a story hook and foreigners are magic.

The writing (or fine art) is on the wall...

The writing (or fine art) is on the wall…

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Can You Separate A Film Maker From Their Body of Work?

I considered writing this little piece in a vacuum, leaving the issue the sparked it sitting like an elephant in the room – but there’s really no point avoiding it. I’ve been troubled watching Roman Polanski films ever since I read up and discovered why he had to direct The Ninth Gate from abroad. The knowledge that he had engaged in sexual acts with a thirteen year old girl has been very hard to disassociate from the man in viewing his filmography – oddly enough, it’s harder to disassociate than the grisly facts surrounding the brutal murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson family. I saw The Pianist and his rather lacklustre (Playboy financed) version of Macbeth before I found out about his flight to Europe and his seemingly eternal exile. I was unlucky enough to see Chinatown afterwards, and as great as the film was I couldn’t quite get over what Polanski had done. Am I being a little silly or is it really hard to view the work of film makers in a vacuum?

"Forget it, Jake, it's Polaski..."

"Forget it, Jake, it's Polaski..."

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