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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Field of Fire (Review)

Field of Fire is an oddly nineties piece of television.

All television shows are inevitably a product of their time. This was particularly true of the twenty-odd-episode-a-season shows produced during the twentieth century, subject to the brutal churn of a weekly production schedule. The production team needed scripts, which meant that the writers needed ideas. Inevitably, those ideas were drawn from the wider culture around them. As a result, television is often an interesting lens through which culture might be examined, a projection of how a given society sees (or perhaps wishes to see) itself.

The noblest aim.

Star Trek: Enterprise was inescapably a product of the War on Terror, caught in the gravity of the attacks upon the World Trade Centre. Star Trek: Voyager was undeniably a child of the nineties, driven largely be a sense of listless anxiety in the shadow the millennium. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could never be entirely removed from its cultural context, it still stood apart. The writers tended to draw their themes from history, rather than from current affairs, creating a Star Trek show that seemed to exist beyond its cultural moment.

Of course, there are exceptions. Field of Fire is that most nineties of television episodes, the serial killer psychological thriller.

Highly illogical.

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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 – 4-D (Review)

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

In many ways, the ninth season begins with 4-D.

This is perhaps the perfect point for an “alternate reality” episode. After all, The X-Files has undergone a transformation; the reality of the show has been fundamentally and impossibly altered. It might have the same title, it might have an opening sequence that somewhat resembles the old opening sequence, it might even have continuity of characters like Scully and Skinner. However, something has changed. This is not Mulder and Scully, but this is still The X-Files. The show has transitioned. The world has changed around it.

A close shave...

A close shave…

The first three episodes of the season – Nothing Important Happened Today I, Nothing Important Happened Today II, and Dæmonicus – were all produced before 9/11, even though they were broadcast two months after the attacks. (9/11 actually fell during the production of Dæmonicus, with shooting stopping for a day.) The fourth episode of the season, Hellbound, was pushed back deeper into the broadcast order. As such, 4-D was the first episode to be both produced and aired after 9/11.

Appropriately enough, that means that 4-D exists in a different world than the episodes directly preceding it. It has been remarked that the events of 9/11 represented a break in cultural continuity, a line by which history might (relatively cleanly) be divided. There was the world “before 9/11” and “after 9/11.” Although the worlds might look quite similar – and even identical, in many cases – they should not be confused. The world is not as it was. Reality has come undone.

Well, Doggett could always make it as a stand-up comedian.

Well, Doggett could always make it as a stand-up comedian.

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Millennium – Nostalgia (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Nostalgia is the last “serial killer of the week” story produced by Millennium.

Sure, there is a serial killer in Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That, but the last two episodes of Millennium are much more interested in the show’s mythology than in a nuts-and-bolts “Frank catches a serial killer” story. Appropriately enough, given its title, Nostalgia feels like a throwback to a simpler version of Millennium. In a way, it does more to capture the mood and feel of the first season of the show than anything like Matryoshka or Seven and One. It helps that Nostalgia is a great episode, judged by it own merits.

Frank sees all. All.

Frank sees all. All.

It makes sense that Nostalgia should come from Michael R. Perry. With his debut script for The Mikado in the second season, Perry had demonstrated quite a knack for traditional Millennium storytelling. The Mikado was arguably something of a throwback itself, the most old-school “serial killer of the week” story in the show’s delightfully off-kilter second season. If the show wanted to do one last “serial killer of the week” story, there was no writer better suited to crafting it than Michael R. Perry.

In a way, Nostalgia feels like belated vindication for the “back to basics” aesthetic running through the third season – proof that perhaps it might be possible for the show to recapture some of the stronger aspects of the first season even this late in the game. Nostalgia is a much better version of the stories that Closure and Through a Glass Darkly had tried to resurrect earlier in the year. It might be enough to entirely redeem the season’s stubborn fixation on a past fading into history, but it does demonstrate that there were interesting stories to be told using that technique.

Parks and recreation...

Parks and recreation…

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Millennium – The Mikado (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.

Glen Morgan and James Wong famously pulled Millennium away from its “serial killer of the week” format in its second season. While the label might be a little harsh (and perhaps a little exaggerated), it did hint at a recurring formula in the first season. Frank Black would be called in to catch a serial killer with a unique and distinctive modus operandi. The first season was littered with episodes built around that core format, wildly varying in quality. For every Blood Relatives or Paper Dove, there was a Loin Like a Hunting Flame or Kingdom Come.

The second season largely moved away from all that. Although Morgan and Wong occasionally made nods towards the classic format in episodes like Beware of the Dog, 19:19 or Goodbye Charlie, the second season of the show was a lot less formulaic and familiar. This is was a show that could transition from The Hand of St. Sebastian to Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” to Midnight of the Century to Goodbye Charlie to Luminary. It seemed quite reasonable to suggest that the second season of Millennium was not as firmly attached to the concept of serial killers as the first season had been.

This is Avatar calling...

This is Avatar calling…

This makes The Mikado a rather unique instalment, arriving a little past half-way through the season. Written by Michael R. Perry, The Mikado is very much an archetypal serial killer story. There is a case from Frank Black’s past, lots of victims, some occult imagery, and even a ticking plot. In fact, The Mikado is probably the only episode of the second season that would arguably fit more comfortably in either the first or third seasons of the show. All you’d have to do is write out the character of Roedecker.

However, there is something decidedly big and bold about The Mikado. It is perhaps the most archetypal (and maybe the most successful) straight-down-the-middle “serial killer of the week” story that Millennium ever produced. After all, if you are only going to do produce one truly traditional “serial killer of the week” story in a season, you may as well go big. And you can’t go much bigger than the Zodiac.

It's all about the execution...

It’s all about the execution…

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Millennium – Paper Dove (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Millennium is an odd show in a number of ways.

The most obvious of these oddities is the sense that each of the three seasons feels like a different television show. The first season is markedly distinct from the second, the second is clearly delineated from the third. It is a very strange structure, one explained by the fact that the three seasons were overseen by three different creative teams with three very different visions of the show. One of the results of this approach is that each season finalé becomes a de facto series finalé, an episode bidding farewell to a particular vision of the show.

This is what it feels like... when doves cry...

This is what it feels like… when doves cry…

Paper Dove bids farewell to the “serial-killer-of-the-week” mechanics of the first season. Of course, there would be later episodes that would feature serial killers. In fact, The Mikado is possibly the best serial killer the show ever did. The Beginning and the End seems explicitly about killing off the “serial-killer-of-the-week” so that the show can invest its time and energy in other pursuits. However, stripped down to its core, Paper Dove takes the show’s approach to serial killers to its logic conclusion.

Although the show has featured serial killers with motivations that might be easily understood and perhaps even pitiable, Henry Dion is the show’s first serial killer to becomes almost sympathetic; it is one of the rare times that the show manages to capture the banality of evil, as opposed to the show’s traditional approach – one that brushes up against (and occasionally crosses over into) a sensationalist or gratuitous approach to serial killer pathology.

Picture this...

Picture this…

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Millennium – Broken World (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

On paper, there is a lot to like about Broken World.

In theory, it is Robert Moresco building off the success of Covenant, developing another story that works within the framework of Millennium without adhering to the formulaic “serial-killer-of-the-week” approach. As in Covenant, Frank Black is wandering the country to do good, a stranger who comes to town to fight evil. In this case, the evil takes the form of a budding young serial killer – a fiend who has not yet claimed a human life, but seems to be building towards it.

"I think he's trying to tell us something..."

“I think he’s trying to tell us something…”

In reality, Broken World is a number of great ideas suffering from terrible execution. While the story is technically quite distinct from the stock “serial-killer-of-the-week” stories that haunted the series in the middle of the series, the practical difference is minimal. Broken World is another story of sadism and brutality that inevitably feels sleazy and exploitative. While the episode could be an interesting twist on a tired structure, Willi Borgsen is just another generic psychopath like Edward Petey or Art Nesbitt.

Still, the title feels somewhat appropriate. Broken World does a lot to demonstrate how far Millennium has come in this stretch of episodes. Broken World would have felt quite comfortable sandwiched between Weeds and Loin Like a Hunting Flame. Sitting between Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and Maranatha, it feels almost like a relic.

Who's gonna ride your wild horses?

Who’s gonna ride your wild horses?

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