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Star Trek: Voyager – Good Shepherd (Review)

Good Shepherd is a terrible execution of a potentially interesting premise.

There is something interesting in speculating what the Star Trek universe must look like for those characters who exist outside the senior staff of a given series. This premise has been explored and touched upon in a number of episodes; most notably in the basic premise of Star Trek: Discovery, the primary plots of Lower Decks and Learning Curve, even the sections of Strange New World focusing on Novakovich and Cutler. Still, these are only a handful of episodes in a franchise that spans half a century and over seven hundred installments.

Looking out for her crew…

As such, the basic plot of Good Shepherd is compelling. The teaser visuals the appeal of such a story in a playful and innovative way, with the camera following a command all the way from the top of the ship to the bottom; from Janeway’s ready room to Astrometrics to Engineering to the lowest viewing port on the ship. It is an interesting way of demonstrating how anonymous and disconnected individuals can feel, even on board a ship with a crew numbering around one hundred and fifty. What does it feel like to be anonymous, on a ship as isolated as Voyager?

Unfortunately, Good Shepherd awkwardly bungles the question. In doing so, it fails to provide any satisfying answers.

Running rings…

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Non-Review Review: First Reformed

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

First Reformed is an unholy mess.

On paper, First Reformed has some very interesting ideas. It is a film grappling very consciously with weighty themes and heavy subject matter. It is about the challenge of finding faith in a modern and cynical world, and about reconciling the mundane maintenance of spiritual belief with the euphorically elevation of pure devotion. This is a broad theme that resonates in a world that feels increasingly disconnected and diffused, in a time when people feel increasingly distant from purpose or meaning.

Indeed, the core premise invites comparisons to Taxi Driver, which remains the defining work in Schrader’s filmography. Schrader has been working as a writer for almost forty-five years, and as a director for forty years, but his body of work is still discussed in terms of the second script that he wrote. Although most audiences associate Taxi Driver with the creative partnership of Scorsese and DeNiro, it was a work that was very important to Schrader, articulating themes and ideas to which he would return time and time again.

First Reformed brings Schrader back to that, with Reverend Ernst Toller feeling very much like a spiritual sibling to Travis Bickle, a man who struggles to make sense and to find meaning in a chaotic world and who decides to impose his own order upon the universe. Schrader is very much playing with his own history and iconography here, playing out a familiar story in a new setting with a slightly different emphasis. As with a lot of artists revisiting their earlier and defining, the results are frustrating. First Reformed bends and contorts in the shadow of its predecessor, never coming into its own.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Covenant (Review)

Covenant is a flawed and fascinating episode.

In its own way, although obviously a much less extreme manner than The Siege of AR-558, this is an episode that could only have been produced on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is not simply down to matters of continuity, and how the episode ties into the mythology of the series. More specifically, it is an exploration of religious themes and ideas that is only really possible within the framework of this particular Star Trek spin-off. It is difficult to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager tackling the idea of religious cults so effectively.

Altaring his plans.

Part of this is down to a lingering suspicion that the other Star Trek shows subtly (or not so subtly) consider all religions to be cults. After all, shows like The Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the SkyJustice, Who Watches the Watchers? and Devil’s Due left little room for ambiguity. The other Star Trek series seem downright hostile to the idea of religious belief, even if episodes like The Cloud and Sacred Ground might suggest a more open-minded approach to spirituality.

Deep Space Nine has generally been more willing to engage with the idea of religious belief as something that is worthy of exploration and consideration, something that is for an individual to determine on their own terms. Some characters on Deep Space Nine are explicitly atheist, like Jadzia Dax or Odo. Some characters hold strong religious beliefs, like Kira or Nog. Some characters believe in spiritual traditions without ever seeming particularly devote, like Worf. Some characters even evolve over the course of the series, like Sisko.

Preach out and touch faith.

This willingness to accept multiple facets and forms of religious belief allows Deep Space Nine to construct a story like Covenant. In any other Star Trek series, Covenant would seem like a knee-jerk dismissal of religious faith and organised belief, the tale of how a group of Bajorans were swindled by a charismatic leader with tragic consequences. It would be read as a generic condemnation of religious belief, an endorsement of an atheistic worldview that has developed beyond the need for such superstition.

Instead, Covenant is something more interesting and nuanced than that. It is an episode about a particular kind of belief, about a particular sort of religion. It is an episode about the dangers of a very particular form of worship. It is an episode about the perils of religious cults, but one which understands the distinction between that and other forms of spirituality.

He hasn’t a prayer.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Shadows and Symbols (Review)

Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols continue to reframe the theology of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in terms of Christian iconography.

To be fair, it makes sense that Christian imagery and metaphor should so heavily influence film and television. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of entertainment, and so it makes sense that its preoccupations should filter through into the art that it creates. After all, certain plot and story threads on Star Trek: Voyager (including the Kazon, and the treatment of immigrants and refugees in Displaced and Day of Honour) are very clearly anchored in a number of racial anxieties unique to California during the nineties.

The writing’s on the wall.

However, there was something very interesting in the way that Deep Space Nine had introduced and developed its theology. The early seasons of Deep Space Nine were heavily influenced by more eastern religions, like Buddhism. They were also more ambiguous in their portrayal of the wormhole aliens, suggesting that the enigmatic creatures could be both aliens and gods, depending on one’s perspective. Even then, there was a recurring suggestion in episodes like Emissary and Prophet Motive that the wormhole aliens did not conform to human morality.

As Deep Space Nine approaches the end of its run, it simplifies its approach to religion. The Prophets become a lot less ambiguous, and the spiritual framework becomes a lot more conventional. This process really began in earnest with The Assignment and was solidified in The Reckoning, but it becomes a lot more concrete in Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols.

Let there be light.
And it was good.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Image in the Sand (Review)

There is an endearing sense of symmetry to the seventh season premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The writers who worked on the show have been quite candid about their creative process. In particular, most of the production team would acknowledge that the show was heavily improvised rather than planned in advance. While the creators had a sense of the direction in which they wanted to move, they did not have a clear destination in mind until quite late in the journey. This was quite obvious looking at a number of the strange narrative detours that the arc took, most notably Gul Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light.

A Time to Sands.

At the same time, as the seventh season began, it seemed like the writers working on Deep Space Nine had a much stronger idea of how they wanted the series to come to a close. Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a very clever structural choice for the seventh season premiere. They exist at once as echoes of the arc that opened the sixth season and as preludes to the story that would conclude the seventh. They exist as bookends to these two chapters of the larger series, feeling almost like the exact midpoint of a larger story.

Positioned approximately half-way between the epic six-episode arc that opened the sixth season and the sprawling ten-episode narrative that would draw down the curtain at the end of the seventh season, Image in the Sand and Shadows and Symbols feel like a much smaller affair. However, they are still well-observed and well-written, covering a lot of thematic and narrative ground in a way that contextualises what come before and sets up what will follow.

“Play it again, Sisko.”

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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 – The Omega Directive (Review)

The Omega Directive plays like Star Trek: Voyager is trying to push itself.

It is an episode which finds Janeway acting secretively and unilaterally, casually brushing aside the Prime Directive in service of some hidden agenda. This is a very big deal. On the original Star Trek, it frequently seemed like the Prime Directive was something for Kirk to outwit. However, since Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise has taken the rule to have a lot more moral weight. Even more precisely, since Caretaker, Janeway has emphasised that it is not her place to intervene directly in the affairs of alien civilisations.

The be-all and end-all.

So there sound be something very shocking about Janeway keeping secrets from her crew and forsaking the moral principle that had been the cornerstone of her first few years in command. Given how conventional Voyager has been, how carefully the show has pitched itself as the most archetypal of Star Trek shows, this should be a pretty big deal. What would get Janeway to consciously (and even enthusiastically) cross those lines? How far would she go? What else is she concealing from the people around her? It should be a powerhouse episode of television.

However, The Omega Directive falls flat. Part of the problem is timing, with The Omega Directive sandwiched between Inquisition and In the Pale Moonlight in terms of the overall franchise chronology. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been transgressing and subverting franchise norms for years at this point. The Omega Directive feels like something relatively small-scale, juxtaposed against the activities of Section 31 or Sisko’s complicity in murder. The Omega Directive thinks that it is playing in the same league, but it is not even the same sport.

An explosive new development.

More than that, there is a clumsiness to The Omega Directive. The episode touches on a number of interesting ideas, but the story’s thematic weight is quite consciously removed from the core premise. The Omega Directive works best as a weird episode touching on Borg spirituality, and on the question of the Collective’s motivations, but the episode invests so much energy in the black-ops norm-shattering framing device that these elements do not feel like satisfying pay-off. The core themes of The Omega Directive feel like they belong in another episode.

The Omega Directive is a wasted opportunity, its underwhelming subversive trappings distracting from what might have been a compelling meditation on faith and belief.

That healthy blue glow.

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