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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 5 (Review)

It is hard to discern a central arc or purpose to the fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

There are certainly recurring preoccupations and ideas simmering through the twenty-six episodes of the fifth season, reflecting the interests of the creative team. Indeed, many of these themes culminate in Equinox, Part I, the fifth season finale. However, there is never a sense that any of these ideas are being assembled in service of anything, never a sense of what exactly the production team want to say about these themes or where they want to go with these concepts.

The fifth season of Voyager feels rather listless. This may be due to a combination of factors. Most obviously, the fourth season of Voyager was arguably the show’s best season, one marked by a sense of purpose and forward momentum. Thanks to the introduction of Seven of Nine and the miniature arc focusing on the Hirogen, along with the clever bookending of Scorpion, Part II with Hope and Fear, there was a sense that the fourth season of Voyager had ended in a different place than it began.

The big issue with the fifth season of Voyager is that it feels like the series is running in place.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Course: Oblivion (Review)

Course: Oblivion is a fantastic piece of television, in large part because of how strange and surreal it feels. Like Distant Origin or Living Witness, it is an episode that demonstrates how effective Star Trek: Voyager can be, once it is willing to push itself beyond the template of familiar Star Trek storytelling. Course: Oblivion is a staggeringly weird piece of television, a bottle episode filmed with the primary cast on standing sets, but which only features the briefest of appearances from the regular characters.

More than that, Course: Oblivion effectively weaponises many of the long-standing weaknesses and clichés associated with the storytelling on Voyager. It is the very definition of a “reset” button episode, in that the events (and the ending) of the episode are both catastrophic in scale and utterly inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. In some ways, Course: Oblivion is the quintessential Voyager episode, distilling the destruction of Voyager and the death of Janeway into a tragedy with absolutely no repercussions.

‘Til death do us…

Voyager could often feel generic and disconnected, a show without a unique identity. In many ways, Course: Oblivion is very unique to Voyager in that it builds those core ideas into the very fabric of the episode, constructing an episode that reflects Voyager‘s identity by channeling its identity crisis. As with various other episodes of the fifth season, like Night and TimelessCourse: Oblivion builds a meta-text around the anxieties rippling through Voyager at this point in the run.

However, Course: Oblivion is more than just an effective illustration of Voyager‘s storytelling tropes and unique sensibility. Course: Oblivion is also an episode that taps into a lot of the anxieties bleeding through the zeitgeist at the turn of the millennium. Voyager was undoubtedly a television of its time, and tended to reflect the existential paranoia of the nineties. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to grapple with a person’s own unreality, to wrestle with an existence where meaning no longer exists, and everything is illusory.

“… well, that was quicker than expected.”

Even beyond those themes that anchor Course: Oblivion is the cultural landscape of the late nineties, the episode ties back into broader Star Trek themes. One of the great strengths of the Star Trek franchise is the freedom to use a science-fiction template to explore big questions. Course: Oblivion is an episode about what it means to face death, in a manner very distinct from the way that television usually treats death. The death in Course: Oblivion is not meaningful or epic or heroic. The death in Course: Oblivion is inevitable decay, a murmur in an infinite void.

The result is one of the most striking and effective episodes that Voyager ever produced, and easily the most ambitious episode of the fifth season as a whole.

Face off.

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The Defenders – Mean Right Hook (Review)

The shared universe is a feature of comic book storytelling that has gradually crept into the mainstream.

In some ways, it is a logical escalation of the concept of sequels, a way of expanding storytelling opportunities in a way that beacons in fans of existing properties. The shared universe is a prime example of modern pop culture’s investment in intellectual property ahead of personality, where the familiar concept behind a film or television series is often as attractive as any star headlining. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most successful example, spanning movies, novels and television shows all (in theory) set within the same fictional world.

It’s a big universe out there.

The shared universe has become the default mode for big-budget storytelling in the twenty-first century, a structure towards which studios aspire. The most obvious examples are the shared comic book universes from Disney and Warner Brothers, with another coming from Sony in the near future. However, there are countless other examples. Disney has begun constructing standalone stories within its Star Wars universe. James Wan has built up an unlikely blockbuster horror shared universe.

The Defenders is an interesting beast, the culmination of a shared subuniverse. It brings together the primary characters from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist in their own weird little corner of the shared Marvel cinematic universe.

Devil in the details.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Infinite Regress (Review)

As with One from late in the fourth season, Infinite Regress is an episode that uses Seven of Nine’s cybernetic mind as a vehicle for psychological horror.

Producer Brannon Braga has always been interested in constructing psychological thrillers within the science-fiction framework of Star Trek, using the franchise’s pseudo-science trappings as a way to explore themes of mental deterioration or disconnect. Frame of Mind is probably the first example, but there are many others. Braga is very interested in having his characters question the nature of their reality, of trapping them within their own minds, of undercutting their sense of self. That interest bled into the shows around him.

Self-image.

Star Trek: Voyager presented the writers with an artificial computer-generated character who could more readily combine the writer’s fascination with psychological thrillers and the franchise’s engagement with advanced technology. The EMH was a character whose mind was comprised entirely of computer protocols and software code. His mind could be unfurled on monitors, buffered in memory, fragmented on the hard drive. Episodes like Projections, The Swarm and Darkling suggested a character prone to psychosis, reinforced by Dejaren’s breakdown in Revulsion.

However, the addition of Seven of Nine to the cast in Scorpion, Part II seemed to provide the the Voyager writers (and Braga in particular) with character who could function as an even more effective vehicle for these sorts of stories. Seven is a fusion of human and machine, an organic brain augmented by technological components. She is a character whose mind is in many ways already divided, whose sense of self is understandably fragile. As such, Seven is ideally suited to stories like Infinite Regress.

Mind your step.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Waking Moments (Review)

Waking Moments feels very much like a first or second season episode of Star Trek: Voyager that somehow entered production in the middle of the fourth season.

A lot of this is down to the simple texture of the episode. Waking Moments centres around a decidedly “weird” alien species, a touch that recalls the early mysteries of Delta Quadrant life suggested by episodes like Phage, The Cloud, Heroes and Demons, Cathexis and even Emanations. These are aliens that do not conform to standard Star Trek logic, stalking their prey through dreams rather than with advanced technology. In fact, the emphasis on dreams in Waking Moments harks back to the vague New Age sentiment of Michael Piller’s time on Voyager.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

No, Chakotay. Hunters and Prey are next week.

In fact, Waking Moments returns to a very New Age cliché version of Chakotay. Following on directly from Mortal Coil, Chakotay is once again repeating “ah-koo-chee-moya” and talking about “vision quests.” He mentions his father as a connection to his Native American heritage for the first time since Basics, Part I, and even evoked Tattoo in discussing his rejection of shared activities in his youth. Waking Moments feels like an episode that was originally written while Michael Piller was overseeing the show, but has finally made it to air.

Of course, Waking Moments feels rather retrograde in other ways. It is a very clumsy ensemble piece that treats tired old plot twists as innovative and exciting, moving along at a leaden pace without any sense of what makes this story interesting or compelling in its own right. Waking Moments is a surprisingly tiring piece of television.

An artist's impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

An artist’s impression of the audience watching Waking Moments.

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The X-Files – Release (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Release is a breath of fresh air.

There are problems with the episode, serious problems. The plotting is incredibly loose, with Release relying upon a series of incredible contrivances even once you get past the supernaturally-gifted crime-solver who only joined the FBI so he could solve a murder that happens to connect back to Luke Doggett. At best, Release is clumsy and inelegant. At worst, it makes absolutely no sense. More than that, there is the question of whether or not the episode is actually necessary. Does The X-Files actually need to resolve the murder of Luke Doggett?

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

These are fairly sizable and fundamental problems. There is no getting around them. However, Release offsets those problems by being a spectacularly-produced piece of television. Everything works, from Robert Patrick’s performance to Mark Snow’s piano-heavy score to Kim Manner’s stylised direction. Release is a reminder of just how sleek and well-oiled The X-Files could be. That is quite a relief after the triple whammy of Scary Monsters, Jump the Shark and William. Release is a good episode on its own terms; in context, it is a masterpiece.

It also helps that Release feels like the first attempt to give the show actual material closure since Improbable. That closure is thematic rather than literal, with the mystery of Luke Doggett’s death serving as a vehicle through which the show might finally resolve some of its own lingering threads. In the case of Release, the show is tidying away the strands that have been woven into the fabric of The X-Files from the beginning; strands that paid homage to Silence of the Lambs and gave birth to Millennium. Release bids farewell to the forensic side of The X-Files.

The old man and the sea...

The old man and the sea…

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The X-Files – Audrey Pauley (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

One of the surprising aspects of the ninth season is just how strong the episodes centring on Doggett and Reyes are.

True, there are not necessarily too many “all-time classic” episodes to be found across the length and breadth of the ninth season; that is arguably true of every season since the sixth. The strongest episodes of the ninth season tend to be those focusing on the two new lead characters actually doing their jobs and navigating the weird world around them. 4-D, John Doe, Hellbound and Audrey Pauley rank among the very best that the ninth season has to offer. The biggest problem with the ninth season is the difficulty that the show has maintaining that level of quality.

Into the void...

Into the void…

The ninth season never manages any real consistency. It never commits to one vision of the show or the other. While the stronger episodes suggest that The X-Files might be ready to move on past Mulder and Scully to embrace Doggett and Reyes, the show always returns to insisting that Mulder is still the most important character on the show despite David Duchnovny’s reluctance to return. Nothing Important Happened Today I featured David Duchovny’s stunt butt before Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick or Annabeth Gish. That is the show’s priority.

This becomes particularly troublesome in the second half of the season. Steven Maeda seems to have a great deal of luck in his ninth season writing assignment, tackling episodes that wind up taking on a larger symbolic importance. 4-D was the first episode to be both produced and broadcast after the events of 9/11, due to scheduling choices that pushed Hellbound later into the season. Although Nothing Important Happened Today I was broadcast nearly two months after the attacks, the production team were actually working on Dæmonicus when news broke.

"Woops. Sorry. Wrong wall."

“Woops. Sorry. Wrong wall.”

Audrey Pauley winds up being the first episode to be produced and broadcast after the cancellation of The X-Files had been announced. The public had been informed of the cancellation between the broadcast of John Doe and Hellbound. The production team had found out while working on Scary Monsters. Due to scheduling choices, Scary Monsters had been pushed back later into the season and Audrey Pauley was aired first. Although it is quite likely Maeda was working on Audrey Pauley long before the cancellation, it still echoes through the work.

Audrey Pauley plays into some of Maeda’s core themes, suggesting alternate and pocket realities that navigate the void between life and death. As with 4-D, Audrey Pauley is very much a post-9/11 episode of The X-Files. However, it is also very much a post-cancellation episode of The X-Files.

Now, where have I seen this before?

Now, where have I seen this before?

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