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Doctor Who: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Prototype (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.

In what is becoming a recurring theme for the second season of Star Trek: Voyager, Prototype is a mess.

As with a lot of the surrounding episodes, its production was fraught and tense; tensions seemed to be building among the production team as the season progressed. Prototype was an episode that was largely driven by Michael Piller, and one opposed by Jeri Taylor. Kenneth Biller was responsible for tweaking and rewriting Nicholas Corea’s script, but he does not seem particularly fond of the episode. These tensions and disagreements would build to a climax in the second half of the year.

Bride of 4739...

Bride of 3947…

Prototype is not a good episode, by any measure. There are a lot of elements that are interesting on their own terms, but there is also something quite nasty and uncomfortable sitting at the heart of the hour. It is a story about motherhood, but one which suggests that unconventional motherhood must be monstrous and grotesque. Even beyond the awkward subtext of the episode, there are problems. Despite Piller’s attempts to energise storytelling on Voyager, the pacing of Prototype is atrocious.

Prototype is not the biggest misfire of the season. Given the season around it, this should not be misconstrued as an endorsement.

(Warp) core values...

(Warp) core values…

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The X-Files – Salvage (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Salvage is another mid-season “monster of the week” that doesn’t quite work.

As with Surekill, it is possible to imagine the interplay between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson elevating this episode had it been produced in the seventh season, as was originally planned. The Doggett and Scully pairing lacks that easy dynamic that made so many generic episodes flow so easily. That is not to say that Robert Patrick and Gillian Anderson don’t work well together, simply that they don’t replicate the once-in-a-lifetime chemistry that Randy Stone found with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

Testing his metal...

Testing his metal…

That said, Salvage has more severe problems than Badlaa or Medusa. In many respects, Salvage feels like a first season episode of the show that arrived seven years too late – in terms of tone, design and aesthetic. There is a clumsiness to the execution, an awkwardness to the presentation, that feels like the show has forgotten many of the lessons that it learned in its time on television. If it is fair to argue that the eighth season is as much the first season of a new show as the last season of the old one, Salvage is the most “first season” episode of the bunch.

Salvage has a host of interesting concepts and ideas, but it lacks the skill and confidence that the show would need to pull off a story like this. Salvage is one of the handful of season eight stories that would arguably have worked better in season seven, albeit only barely.

Scrap that...

Scrap that…

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Star Trek – I, Mudd (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.

I, Mudd is delightfully silly.

This is probably the broadest Star Trek comedy episode ever produced. It is very difficult to imagine any Star Trek ensemble outside the original cast pulling off an episode like this. While The Trouble With Tribbles is easily the show’s most iconic comedy episode (and the franchise’s, to boot), there is something rather plucky and endearing about I, Mudd. One of features of the later Star Trek spin-offs was a tendency to take themselves quite seriously. This isn’t a problem of itself, but it does make it impossible to do a show like I, Mudd.

Mudd in yer eye...

Mudd in yer eye…

As with other second-season episodes, there is a sense that the show is stretching its wings a bit. Catspaw was a clear attempt to do a horror story, and Wolf in the Fold was a slasher or occult film in Star Trek form. Episodes like Amok Time and Journey to Babel are very consciously building out the Star Trek universe. Episodes like I, Mudd and The Trouble With Tribbles demonstrate that Star Trek can do comedy.

To be fair, it is perfectly reasonably to argue that shows like I, Mudd led the show to think that Spock’s Brain was a good idea. Still, I, Mudd is just so much fun – demonstrating the sense of goofy and theatrical fun that ran through so much of classic Star Trek.

"Stella, Stella... You're putting me through hell-a!"

“Stella, Stella… You’re putting me through hell-a!”

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Space: Above and Beyond – The Dark Side of the Sun (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Space: Above and Beyond is half-way between an epic space opera and a wartime saga.

The Dark Side of the Sun confirms something suggested as early as The Pilot. While creators Glen Morgan and James Wong have a firm grasp of the war story aspect of the show, they are a bit less comfortable with the science-fiction elements. While The Farthest Man From Home was a solid old-fashioned “love in wartime” epic, The Dark Side of the Sun is steeped in stock science-fiction elements and interesting ideas, but seems to falter in the execution.

Wild cards...

Wild cards…

It feels very much like Morgan and Wong are trying to push the show’s science-fiction elements to the fore, but aren’t entirely comfortable with those elements. The result is a curious little episode, one that does a decent amount of character and world-building, while also baking some intriguing ideas and concepts into this potential future for mankind. At the same time, there’s an awkwardness to it all, as if The Dark Side of the Sun is trying to establish the show’s sci-fi credentials and can’t quite figure how everything fits together.

The Dark Side of the Sun is a show that feels like it could have used a bit more time and another draft or two, perhaps a reminder that Morgan and Wong are still relatively new at this sort of thing.

Cold dead eyes...

Cold dead eyes…

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Non-Review Review: Transcendence

Transcendence is a passable b-movie suffocated by pretension and self-importance. What amounts to a conventional paint-by-numbers story about technology-gone-mad is suffocated by the weight it affords itself. The movie feels like it wants to be a meditation on technology and human independence, but instead feels like a re-heated fifties science-fiction horror lightly flavoured with millennial anxieties. There are good ideas here – the movie’s second act comes quite close to working, sandwiched between a fuzzy first act and a messy climax – but none of the fun that might excuse the sizeable flaws.

There's an app for that...

There’s an app for that…

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Brothers (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Brothers is Star Trek: The Next Generation getting back to business at usual. Well, not quite usual, but close enough. Following the monumental season-bridging epic that was The Best of Both Worlds and the breathing space afforded by Family, Brothers is a good old-fashioned science-fiction adventure story revolving around one of the show’s most popular character and really written to satisfy a laundry list of Star Trek tropes and conventions.

Although its notable for maintaining a thematic consistency that is threaded through the fourth season, and also for affording Brent Spiner to play three different roles, the most striking aspect of Brothers from a production point of view is the fact that it is written by Rick Berman. Berman had been serving as producer on the show since Encounter at Farpoint, but this was his first scripting contribution. He’d only write one more episode of The Next Generation before the show went off the air.

Given Berman’s production style, it feels strangely appropriate that Brothers is so carefully and meticulously structured and constructed.

"Let's put a smile on that face..."

“Let’s put a smile on that face…”

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