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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Rocks and Shoals (Review)

The opening arc of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the most ambitious storytelling experiments in the history of Star Trek.

To be fair, it is not entirely unique. In some ways, it mirrors the storytelling arc that unfolded across Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Both Kirk and Sisko are separated from their home and from their first officer and from their iconic command, before eventually finding their way to reunite with both. Obviously, a three-film trilogy is distinct from a six-episode arc, even before talking about the tonal, thematic and plotting differences between those three iconic films.

The Jem'Hadar warship that fell to Earth...

The Jem’Hadar warship that fell to Earth…

More than that, the success of the this arc would embolden the production team. They would attempt an even more audacious experiment to close out the seventh season of the series. The sixth season opened with six interconnected stories following the Cardassian reoccupation Terok Nor, building to Sisko’s retaking of the station. The seventh season pushes that even further, with a much more tightly integrated ten-episode arc that attempts to tell a single cohesive story. It is an even bolder creative decision than this arc, committing more strongly to the premise.

Ronald D. Moore’s departure from Star Trek: Voyager early in its sixth season would turn these experiments in serialisation into an evolutionary dead end for the franchise. It would be four years before Rick Berman and Brannon Braga would attempt to a tell a story on that scale. Indeed, faced with declining ratings and the spectre of cancellation, Star Trek: Enterprise attempted what was (on the surface at least) the even more ambitious attempt at a season-long arc across the entirety of the third season.

Winner takes it war...

Between a rock and a hard place.

Still, the six-episode arc that opens the sixth season of Deep Space Nine remains an impressive moment in the history of the franchise. Indeed, contrasted with the sprawling ten-episode arc that closes the series or the season-long arc on Enterprise, it could reasonably be argued that this six-episode stretch does a stronger job of balancing the integrity of individual episodes with the demands of the larger arc. These six episodes are all very strongly connected to one another, with a clear sense of story and character progression, but they also retain their own identities within that.

Rocks and Shoals might be the best example of this, an episode that delicately balances its own storytelling with the needs of the arc as a whole. Rocks and Shoals is at once a great episode in its own right and an essential part of a much larger story.

Express elevator to hell.

Express elevator to hell.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Storm Front, Part I (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II arrive at a transitory time for Star Trek: Enterprise.

The third season of the show had wrapped on a somewhat unexpected cliffhanger, finding Archer confronted by an evil!alien!space!Nazi in the midst of what looked to be the Second World War. Given that the third season had been written as a single extended dramatic arc about Archer and his crew saving Earth from an alien threat, the twist seemed to come out of nowhere. Instead of allowing Archer and his crew to return home, Zero Hour threw out one final hurdle for the characters; a bump in the road home.

Ship shape.

Ship shape.

However, the episodes also marked a transition behind the scenes. This particular iteration of the Star Trek franchise was on borrowed time. There had been warning signs as early as the first season, but the massive reworking of the show in The Expanse suggested that the network had adopted a “do or die” approach to the future of this lucrative science-fiction franchise. The fact that the third season had its episode order cut and there were suggestions that a fourth season was unlikely suggested that the show had not “done.”

Even aside from all that, the start of the fourth season saw Rick Berman and Brannon Braga taking a step back from the franchise and handing the reins to executive producer Manny Coto. In that respect, Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II might be seen as the collective last gasp of the Berman and Braga era. Give or take These Are The Voyages…

Back to the future.

Back to the future.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Zero Hour (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 August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

There was a very real chance that Zero Hour might have been the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise to air.

In fact, it was entirely possible that Zero Hour‘s distinctive (and downright provocative) closing shot of an evil!alien!space!Nazi might have been the last shot of Star Trek to air on television for quite some time.

Time is running out...

Time is running out…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Carpenter Street (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 August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

This is the point at which it becomes all but impossible to argue that the production team knew what they were doing this season.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise holds together reasonably well, if the viewer pulls back to a big enough distance. The broad arcs are discernible and logical – there is a clear start point and a reasonable trajectory, even if the first half of the season tends to get a bit lost. It really pulls itself together during the second half of the season, with one or two exceptions, building towards a finalé that satisfies both the demands of a year-long arc and the franchise surrounding it. It is not perfect, but it is not bad for a first attempt.

Hey kids! It's Leland Orser!

Hey kids! It’s Leland Orser!

Of course, it is also quite clear that the production team really had no idea what they were doing – or even what they were trying to do. The fact that it comes together in the second half of the season all but concedes that it doesn’t hold together in the first half. The first half of the third season is populated with standalone episodes that tend to either fit thematically (North Star, Similitude) or tonally (Impulse, Exile) with the general direction of the show, but a rather limited sense of progress or advancement.

Carpenter Street is the point at which any real sense of trust between the audience and the production team snaps like a twig. It is a story that features the characters time travelling to modern-day Earth in the middle of a gigantic story arc about how they are more isolated than they ever have been before. It throws away any sense of internal logic or consistency, never really exploring how an alien species that can travel back to Detroit in 2004 should have a problem with Earth in 2153. And, crucially, it is not fun enough to excuse those issues.

Hey kid! It's Jeffrey Dean Morgan! (Really!)

Hey kid! It’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan!
(Really!)

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Xindi (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 August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Delivering on change is always more difficult than promising change.

The first block of episodes in the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise struggle with the weight of expectation and the sense that the production team have no real idea of how to manage this sort of storytelling. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had consulted with Ira Steven Behr towards the end of the second season, suggesting that they wanted to model the storytelling loosely on the blend of episodic and serialised scripting that Behr oversaw on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It makes sense, as Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek series to really engage with that sort of storytelling.

A primate example of the Xindi...

A primate example of the Xindi…

In hindsight, it seems a shame that the writing room on Deep Space Nine was allowed to disintegrate so thoroughly. Ira Steven Behr, Hans Beimler and Rene Echevarria departed immediately following What You Leave Behind. Ronald D. Moore migrated briefly over to Star Trek: Voyager, but quit quite promptly following creative disagreements with former collaborator Brannon Braga. The veteran writers on Enterprise came from Voyager. Brannon Braga, Mike Sussman, Phyllis Strong and André Bormanis were all writers who had come into their own working on Voyager.

Star Trek: Voyager a show that was incredibly episodic and seemed to actively resist serialisation even more than Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is not a reflection on the production team. Braga had lobbied to expand Year of Hell into a year-long story arc during the fourth season, but his proposal had been rejected. Discussing the Xindi arc, Braga has talked about how he wanted to tell a year-long Star Trek story, and it is telling that one of his post-Star Trek writing assignments was on 24.

The ascent...

The ascent…

Nevertheless, it meant that the writers working on Enterprise faced a sharp learning curve when it came to structuring the third season. The experience accumulated during the arc-building on Deep Space Nine was largely lost to the franchise, and a lot of the early part of the third season sees Enterprise making a number of teething mistakes. The early stretch of the third season struggles to pace itself, and it struggles to integrate stand-alone stories with its larger serialised arc.

The Xindi is a prime example of this, an episode that has a wealth of interesting ideas and great concepts, but one that stumbles in the execution.

Pointing the finger...

Pointing the finger…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Expanse (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.

And, finally, everything changes.

It feels inevitable. Maybe not in this particular form, maybe not in this particular way, but Star Trek: Enterprise needed something. The show needed to stop feeling like a relic of the early nineties – a great song played on loop to the point where it became nothing more than generic white noise. The Expanse gives the show a clear sense of direction and a clear sense of purpose. It is not a direction that is unanimously loved, and it is not a purpose that is realised as well as it might be, but it finally feels like Enterprise is boldly going in its own direction.

A walk among the wreckage...

A walk among the ruins…

In many respects, the obvious point of comparison for The Expanse is an episode like The Jem’Hadar or A Call to Arms. It is an episode that is clearly written to reach an ending so that the show can start doing something new. These episodes tend to tease a brave new future, one utterly unlike anything that Star Trek has done before, but they play like extended forty-five minute trailers. Watching The Expanse, it feels like show runners Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are thinking more about the direction than the destination. That’s not a bad thing at this point.

Polarising as it might be, and occasionally awkward as it might be, The Expanse was utterly necessary. Enterprise is a Star Trek show that exists in the shadow of 9/11. That horrific terrorist attack has reverberated throughout the series. The War on Terror informs and distorts narratives like Shadows of P’Jem, ShockwaveThe SeventhCease FireThe CrossingJudgmentRegeneration and Cogenitor. However, there is a sense that Enterprise never accepted that heavy pull of gravity.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

Sometimes it worked; Judgment, Regeneration and Cogenitor are all examples of the series trying to apply its own morality to a more complicated and confusing geopolitical climate. However, the War on Terror made it hard to reconcile Jonathan Archer as both an explorer and a paranoid reactionary. The unquestioning trust in authority in The Seventh, to the point where he did not question the Vulcan High Command’s mindwipe of T’Pol? The all-consuming dread upon meeting something different in The Crossing? These do not fit well within Star Trek.

So The Expanse pushes all that to the front. The opening teaser features a strange alien ship appearing and carving a large scar in the surface of the planet – a very visual representation of the damage done to the utopian optimism of Star Trek. Now that the scar had been literalised, it could be discussed and explored. The Expanse made sure that nobody was talking around the elephant in the room; everybody was now charging right at it.

The way ahead is cloudy...

The way ahead is cloudy…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Stigma (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.

It’s been a long road.

Continuing the effort in Dawn to refocus Star Trek: Enterprise on franchise core values, Stigma offers a good old-fashioned allegory episode. It is a script clearly designed to stand alongside earlier iconic Star Trek shows like A Taste of ArmageddonErrand of MercyLet That Be Your Last BattlefieldToo Short a SeasonThe High GroundHalf a LifeEthics, The Outcast, Rejoined and Distant Origin. This is a big and important episode, dealing with big and important themes. In this case, the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and (whisper it) homosexuality.

It's just not in the show's DNA at this point...

It’s just not in the show’s DNA at this point…

Of course, it arrives well over a decade too late. Writer David Gerrold had pitched his own allegory about HIV/AIDS and homosexuality with Blood and Fire during the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The script was a little clunky, but – rather than rework it – the producers decided to shut it down completely. During that show’s third season, David Livingston was on hand to stop the show from providing the franchise’s first glimpse of a homosexual couple in The Offspring. What queer content made it into Star Trek seemed somewhat haphazard.

The decision to allow Lal to chose her own gender in The Offspring is remarkable, because it goes almost unremarked. Dax’s deduction that Pel has a crush on Quark in Rules of Acquisition comes before Pel reveals that she is a female passing herself off as male. The sincerity of The Outcast was somewhat undermined by the decision to cast a female performer in the role of genderless alien who is attracted to Riker. The good work of Rejoined is undercut by the crassness of Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak.

Meditating on a contemporary issue...

Meditating on a contemporary issue…

There was a time when an episode like Stigma would have seemed cutting edge and provocative. Broadcast during the first (or even the second) season of The Next Generation, the episode would have challenged a number of the underlying public assumptions about the spread of HIV/AIDS and attacked a very real (and very frank) homophobic policy from the government. The biggest problem with Stigma is that it features Captain Jonathan Archer instead of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Of course, this suggests a very tangible issue with Enterprise at this stage of its life-cycle. It still feels like a show stuck in the past. This is still Star Trek as it was being produced in 1989, despite the fact that it is now 2003. It is a problem that has haunted Enterprise since the broadcast of Fight or Flight, but one which is really emphasised not only by the plotting of Stigma, but also in its political targets.

"You know, given how often I seem to risk removal from the ship, I should probably just keep this packed..."

“You know, given how often I seem to risk removal from the ship, I should probably just keep this packed…”

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