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Star Trek: Voyager – Meld (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Meld is a masterpiece. It is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager to date. There is perhaps a reasonable argument to be made that it is one of the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is, in many respects, one of the strongest and most compelling exploration of themes that have been bubbling around in the background since Caretaker, offering a more thoughtful and insightful exploration of the nineties culture of fear and anxiety than anything involving the Kazon. It is certainly the best use of Tuvok that the show managed in its seven year run.

Meld is an episode about violence, in its many forms. It is a story about the horrors and arbitrariness of unprovoked violence, but also about the cycles of violence that such actions can create. In many respects, Meld is a more scathing criticism of the death penalty than Repentance, the seventh season episode explicitly written as a death penalty allegory. Unlike many of the surrounding episodes, Meld actually manages to make good use of the show’s Delta Quadrant setting to heighten the dramatic stakes.

"Where's your head at?"

“Where’s your head at?”

In a way, Meld represents a collision of the franchise’s past and future. Meld may be the last truly great Star Trek script written by Michael Piller, the writer who helped to define the modern iteration of the franchise with his work on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, it is also Mike Sussman’s first story credit on the franchise; Sussman would go on to join the show’s writing staff in its final season and would be one of the few writers to serve a full four seasons on Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the script for Meld is exceptionally well-written, the episode is elevated by a combination of factors. Cliff Bole does great work in bringing a very unconventional Star Trek episode to life. Meld could be seen as a continuation of the second season’s b-movie charms. Following on from the robot wars of Prototype and the body horror of Threshold, Meld plays like a Star Trek serial killer thriller. Bole’s directorial choices are consciously stylised, with delightful little touches like the band of light across Tuvok’s eyes when the body is discovered.

"Funny. I though Braga murdered Darwin last week."

“Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week.”

The episode also benefits from two mesmerising central performances from guest star Brad Dourif and Tim Russ. Russ was always one of the more under-utilised members of the Voyager ensemble, particularly when his “obligatory emotionally detached character” role was usurped by Seven of Nine in the fourth season. It is a shame, as Russ has a great deal of fun channeling Nimoy in his portrayal of the franchise’s first full-blooded Vulcan regular. Tuvok (and Russ) deserved more attention than the show afforded him.

That said, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show here. Lon Suder is one of the most fascinating guest characters in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and perhaps the only recurring character member of the Voyager crew who made any impression. A lot of that is down to the novelty of a fundamentally violent character in a Starfleet uniform, but Dourif is absolutely brilliant in the part. Dourif might just be the best guest star ever to appear in Voyager, and one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Beta(zoid) male.

Beta(zoid) male.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of Meld is the way that it feels very much of its time; it is an episode that firmly engages with a cultural context around Voyager. So much of Voyager seems lost in some sort of weird science-fiction neverland where the fifties and sixties never ended that a well-produced episode that feels of its time is a rarity. Meld is an episode that would feel strange ten years earlier or ten years later, but one which aligns perfectly with the wider context of 1996.

It is a overdue triumph from the Voyager team.

Smile!

Smile!

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The X-Files – Travelers (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.

For all that the fifth season of The X-Files is building towards a major summer movie release, the production team seem surprisingly relaxed about it.

The fifth season is as experimental and as loose as the show ever got. Patient X and The Red and the Black suggested that Chris Carter didn’t even feel beholden to the continuity of The X-Files: Fight the Future, introducing new characters and concepts to the mythology that could not possibly be inserted into the film at this late stage. Similarly, the show was willing to play around with special guest writers like Stephen King and William Gibson, film an entire episode in black and white, focus on relatively minor characters, and reveal two separate secret histories of the X-files.

What do you call a baby Fox?

What do you call a baby Fox?

Of course, some of these innovations were driven by necessity or large goals. Patient X and The Red and the Black represent the beginning of the end for this stage of the mythology. Stories like Unusual Suspects and Travelers focus on characters other than Mulder or Scully because David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were otherwise engaged. Nevertheless, there is a very relaxed vibe to the fifth season, as if the show is taking an extended moment to enjoy the peak of its popularity. As well it should.

Travelers is an episode that is far from essential in many respects. It is clunky in places, indulgent in others. It feels like the production teams are just happy to root through the old costuming wardrobe and prop departments, delighted to compose over-written monologues and stock characters. Travelers is light and fun, with its indulgence and its relative lack of substance making it more enjoyable than it would otherwise be.

He'll (Garret Dilla)hunt you down...

He’ll (Garret Dilla)hunt you down…

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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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Star Trek: Enterprise – A Night in Sickbay (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.

A Night in Sickbay may be the most divisive episode of Star Trek: Enterprise ever broadcast.

On the one had, it seems like fans hated the episode with an incredibly passion. The Agony Booth described A Night in Sickbay as “the worst episode of one of the most cringe-worthy shows of the last ten years.” The episode is frequently included in those very popular “worst episodes ever!” polls that the internet loves so much. The only episode that seems more certain to provoke fan vitriol is These Are the Voyages…, the series finalé which has little to say about the actual series.

"I am THIS sorry..."

“I am THIS sorry…”

However, the hatred for A Night in Sickbay is not universal. It was one of two Enterprise episodes to make the shortlist for the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in the “short form” category. More than that, A Night in Sickbay actually polled ahead of the other nominated episode of Enterprise, Carbon Creek. Even in commercial terms, A Night in Sickbay was a success, earning the highest ratings (and share) of the show’s second season.

It seems that A Night in Sickbay exists in a rather strange grey area. It enjoys the support and appreciation of members of the cast and even those outside Star Trek fandom, while it provokes nothing but hatred from hardcore fans. This immediately makes A Night in Sickbay a fascinating watch; any show that can provoke such a polarising response must have some interesting aspects.

Smile!

Smile!

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Star Trek – Amok Time (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Amok Time was the fifth show produced for the second season of Star Trek, but was the first show to air. This isn’t unusual. The production and broadcast order of various Star Trek episodes have not necessarily matched up. On shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this was usually due to production delays or changes on specific episodes. On Star Trek: Voyager, the first and second seasons produced episodes that would not be aired until the other side of summer.

However, on the original Star Trek, the production and broadcast order of the episodes is radically different. For example, Friday’s Child was the third episode of the second season produced, but the eleventh broadcast. This makes watching the show in production order on blu ray a delightfully frustrating experience. The first five episodes produced for the second season are split across three different discs.

Good wholesome family fun...

Good wholesome family fun…

Sometimes the changes in production order were purely practical. For example, The Man Trap was the first episode of Star Trek to air because it happened to be the most suitable of the episodes that had been produced to that point. The broadcast order of the first season introduced all manner of production and continuity glitches, with uniforms and cast changing seemingly randomly. Still, The Man Trap was felt to be, effectively, the least bad option to introduce new audiences to Star Trek.

Amok Time, the second season premiere, was an entirely different kettle of fish. This was easily the strongest of the three Star Trek season premieres, and there’s a sense that the production team knew this going into the episode. Designed to ruthlessly capitalise on the popularity and success surrounding the character of Spock, the episode was very clearly intended to put the show’s best foot forward for audiences returning to watch the second season. The result is one of the best episodes the franchise ever produced.

Spock remains as sharp as ever...

Spock remains as sharp as ever…

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