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Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part II (Review)

To be fair, the clue is in the title.

It is hard to overstate just how big a cultural impact The Matrix had. The film was the fifth highest grossing movie in the United States, the fourth worldwide and the highest-grossing R-rated film of 1999. The Matrix immediately entered the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time at in the twentieth position, and only climbed from there. The Matrix was the first movie to sell more than one million copies on the the nascent DVD format.

Can’t see the forest for the trees.

More than that, The Matrix became a cultural shorthand. Phrases from the film (and its production) entered the popular lexicon; “I know kung-fu”, “the woman in the red dress”, “the red pill”, “bullet time.” Quentin Tarantino named it as one of his favourite movies of the previous quarter-century. The film lives on a context beyond its original production, its language coopted by fringe groups like incels or men’s rights activists or the alt-right. This just speaks to the impact that the film had upon an entire generation of young men.

To be fair, The Matrix did not necessarily articulate anything new, instead bringing together a wealth of science-fiction tropes with an Asian-influenced action aesthetic. After all, it was just one of a wave of films dealing with similar thematic ideas around the same time; The Thirteenth Floor, Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenZ, Harsh Realm. Even Star Trek: Voyager had riffed on similar ideas in stories like Projections or Course: Oblivion. Nevertheless, The Matrix seemed to speak to a particular millennial anxiety at the end of the nineties.

Love across light years.

The Matrix was the story of a future in which humanity had been enslaved, in which human bodies were treated as batteries for a vast and uncaring system. In order to keep humanity docile, this system fed mankind a shared illusion of life at the end of the twentieth century. This illusory world was reality for those dreamers trapped within it, touching on various anxieties about reality and unreality in the context of the late nineties. The Matrix packaged up a host of ambient fears about capitalism, virtual reality, illusion and the end of history in a clever and exciting action film.

It seems inevitable that Voyager would offer its own take on this concept. After all, the series had been playing with similar ideas dating back to its own first season. The fragility of reality and the dangers of convincing simulation are a recurring motif. Indeed, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are not even the only episodes that draw heavily from The Matrix. There are shades of it to Work Force, Part I and Work Force, Part II. Nevertheless, Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II are undoubtedly the most overt examples of this.

Unimatrix reloaded.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Voyager Conspiracy (Review)

The Voyager Conspiracy builds off the nostalgia of One Small Step, paving the way for the nostalgia of Pathfinder.

One of the more interesting aspects of the final two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager is the way in which the show embraces a weird nostalgia, both for the utopian future of the larger Star Trek franchise and also for its own earlier seasons. To be fair, the seeds for this nostalgia were arguably sown during the fifth season, with an increased emphasis on the events of Caretaker in episodes like Night, Relativity and Equinox, Part I, as well as elements like Janeway’s exploration of her family history in 11:59, the fake Earth in In the Flesh, and the return to the Maquis in Extreme Risk.

“What’s all this buzz about?”

Nevertheless, the sixth and seventh seasons of Voyager embrace the nostalgia that has been woven into the series from the outset, the journey toward the “familiar” and the “recognisable.” After all, Voyager has always been a show about the desire to return, but it is particularly interesting to see that urge to go backwards including metaphorical journeys into the history of both the Star Trek franchise and Voyager itself. The final seasons of Voyager apply the idea of returning home reflexively, it often feeling like a desire to slip backwards in time as much as space.

It is interesting to wonder what drives this nostalgia for the early years of Voyager in these final two seasons. Perhaps this wistful yearning is driven by the fact that the show is approaching its end, and is reflecting upon its own nostalgia. Perhaps the series is anxious at being the only Star Trek show on the air for the first time in its run, hoping to return to the safety and security of those early years. Perhaps it ties into a broader cultural anxiety about the millennium, a reflection of the same “end of history” anxiety that informed stories like Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and Living Witness.

Getting into her head.

Whatever the reason, The Voyager Conspiracy feels like an exploration of the Voyager‘s continuity. The plot of the episode finds Seven of Nine effectively binge-watching the first few seasons of the show and trying to structure them into something resembling a cohesive story arc. In doing so, The Voyager Conspiracy includes an uncharacteristic selections of nods and references to earlier episodes; Caretaker, Cold FireManoeuvres, The Gift, Message in a Bottle, The Killing Game, Part I, The Killing Game, Part IIDark Frontier, Part IDark Frontier, Part II.

As such, it is an oddity in the larger context of Voyager, a television series largely defined by the absence of episode-to-episode continuity. Indeed, it is quite telling that The Voyager Conspiracy treats such continuity as inherently dangerous and destabilising influence on Voyager.

Dinner table conversation.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 7 (Review)

The seventh season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a remarkable accomplishment.

The seventh season is not perfect by any measure. Taken as a whole, it lacks the consistency that made the fifth season one of the best twenty-odd-episode seasons of television ever produced, particularly in a dire mid-season run of episodes that includes Prodigal Daughter, Field of Fire and The Emperor’s New Cloak. The fifth season (and even the sixth) never hit a run of three consecutive episodes that drag that hard. Similarly, there are moments when the production trips over itself during its epic run of ten closing episodes.

Similarly, it lacks the sheer quantity of all-time great episodes that made the sixth season so exciting and compelling, like that opening six-episode arc or Far Beyond the Stars or In the Pale Moonlight. However, the seventh season does quite well for itself; episodes like Treachery, Faith and the Great River, Once More Unto the Breach, The Siege of AR-558, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Chimera, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and Tacking Into the Wind are massively underrated and count among the best episode that the franchise ever produced.

However, the seventh season has a very clear sense of direction and purpose. After all seven years is a long time on television. By the time that the other Star Trek series hit that mark, there was a sense of exhaustion creeping in around the edges. The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation often felt aimless and meandering, the production team waiting to transition to feature films. The final season of Star Trek: Voyager felt similarly worn out, a faded photocopy of an approach that had worked on the previous three seasons.

In sharp contrast, the seventh season of Deep Space Nine knows roughly where it is going. From the opening scenes of Image in the Sand, the production team are cognisant of the fact that the curtain will be coming down at the end of the season. As a result, the seventh season is written with an ending in mind. The writers might not have known that ending from the outset, and were still working on it even during the sprawling final arc at the end of the year, but they knew that it existed and was waiting twenty-six episodes in the future.

As a result, the seventh season of Deep Space Nine has a very strong sense of identity and compelling sense of urgency. These attributes distinguish the season the final years of The Next Generation and Voyager, but also mark it out as one of Deep Space Nine‘s (and the franchise’s) strongest years.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tacking Into the Wind (Review)

Tacking Into the Wind might just be the last truly great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Of course, there are some very good episodes lying ahead. However, none of them hum as perfectly as Tacking Into the Wind does. The Dogs of War is fantastically constructed and does pretty much everything that a penultimate episode of a long running series needs to do, but it largely feels like a prelude episode to the grand finale. What You Leave Behind is a powerful and emotive piece of television, and an effective conclusion to seven years of storytelling, but it suffers from some pacing issues and some poor storytelling choices in its second half.

The end of an era.

However, Tacking Into the Wind is just brilliant. Deep Space Nine has produced more than its fair share of (relatively) standalone classic episodes: Duet, The WireThe Way of the Warrior, The Visitor, Trials and Tribble-ations, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight. Even in the seventh season, there have been any number of episodes that work beautifully on their own terms: Treachery, Faith and the Great River, Once More Unto the Breach, The Siege of AR-558, Chimera. Even those tied into larger arcs like the Dominion War still worked as relatively standalone units of story.

However, Tacking Into the Wind is brilliant in a way that is very particular to this moment of Deep Space Nine. Perhaps the closest companion pieces are episodes like Call to Arms or Sacrifice of Angels, episodes that work well enough on their own terms, but become transcendental when approached as the culmination of long-running story threads that pay off months of storytelling decisions. Taking Into the Wind takes this approach and escalates it further. Taking Into the Wind is the culmination of a narrative that has been brewing for the better part of a decade.

Surviving by the skin of his teeth.

Tacking Into the Wind is an episode that could never have worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. It is too dependent on lingering narrative threads, on long-running arcs, on a grand and sweeping (and ironic) view of history. Tacking Into the Wind ties up the fate of the Klingon Empire, an institution that has been in decline since Heart of Glory and rotting from the inside out since Sins of the Father. It parallels that with a fundamental underlying shift in the Cardassian society introduced in The Wounded.

Tacking Into the Wind is an episode that could only possibly work as the pay off to serialised storytelling, and which demonstrates the power of a good dramatic pay-off almost a decade in the making. In many ways, Tacking Into the Wind is the perfect episode for this so-called “Final Chapter”, the perfect distillation of everything that the creative team have been trying to do with this ten-part sprawling epic.

Cloak of office.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – When It Rains… (Review)

One of the interesting aspects of the final arc of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is watching the series grapple with challenges that face a lot of later serialised television shows.

The massive ten-episode conclusion to Deep Space Nine is effectively equivalent to a full season of a highly serialised prestige television show like Game of Thrones, Westworld or The Leftovers. Of course, there are any number of obvious differences, from the need to structure episodes around commercial breaks or the dependency on clunky exposition or the fact that these ten episodes were following a production run of sixteen early episodes in the same production season.

Dukat does not react well to criticism of his role in this epic ten-episode arc.

Nevertheless, these ten episodes grapple with a lot of the difficulties in mapping out a single extended story across a large number of episodes. Deep Space Nine had launched its six season with an impressive six-episode arc that hung together almost perfectly, give or take Sons and Daughters. However, there were unique challenges in attempting that same narrative trick with ten episodes at the end of a production season.

A lot of these problems are pacing related. As with a lot of serialised shows, these ten episodes occasionally struggle to give each episode a unique identity. Strange Bedfellows is an episode that seems stuck between the sets of dramatic reveals either side of it, the weddings and alliances of ‘Til Death Do Us Part or the terror and revelation of The Changing Face of Evil. There is certainly an element of that to When It Rains…, which seems to spend most of its runtime lining up two major plot threads for resolution in the superlative Tacking Into the Wind.

A tailor-made solution.

However, there is also a sense that certain plot and character threads in this sprawling ten episode arc have not been properly mapped out and paced, that the writers have failed to shrewdly allocate their narrative real estate. The writers had enough of an idea where they were going with this arc that they were able to seed most of the important threads leading up to What You Leave Behind with Penumbra. However, the individual story threads were not all equally paced. Some could be sustained for nine more episodes. Others fizzled after four or five.

Not all of the narrative threads running through this extended arc of Deep Space Nine are equally impressive. Some of these story threads are clumsy and mistaken, running out of what little steam they had less than half-way through the extended run. So it is with the bizarre alliance between Dukat and Winn in service of the Pah-Wraiths.

The darkness in men’s hearts.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Strange Bedfellows (Review)

Three seems to be the magic number when it comes to long-form plotting in Berman era Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next Generation arguably pulled off a three-consecutive-episodes arc with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, The Best of Both Worlds, Part II and Family. Even the continuity-adverse Star Trek: Voyager managed something similar with Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II and The Gift. Star Trek: Enterprise tried a number of three-episode arcs in its final season, even if only The Forge, Awakening and Kir’Shara really worked; Borderland was a preamble to Cold Station 12 and The Augments, while The Aenar was a postscript to Babel One and United.

Super villain team-up.

Three episodes seems to work quite well for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The series’ second season premiere was the franchise’s first bona fides three-parter, The Homecoming, The Circle and The Siege. Even when it came to longer arcs, three consecutive episodes seemed be the limit; after Call to Arms, A Time to Stand and Rocks and Shoals, the arc opening the sixth season stumbled with Sons and Daughters before regaining its footing for Behind the Lines, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels.

As an aside, it also took three episodes for the alliance between the Dominion and Cardassia to properly integrate into the show’s mythology after the events of In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light; the fifth season took a pause with Doctor Bashir, I Presume, A Simple Investigation and Business as Usual before beginning to unpack the consequences of that statusquo-shattering twist in Ties of Blood and Water.

Hang loose.

There are any number of reasons why three works so well. Maybe three episodes allow for that classic three-act structure, the iconic storytelling template. Perhaps the production team on Deep Space Nine tended to work in chunks of three scripts at a time, with two or three subsequent scripts in development by the time that any given script was finished; if this was the case, it would mean that the production team was ready to start fresh with the fourth script. Whatever the reason, it is a familiar pattern.

Although “the Final Chapter” is nominally a ten-episode arc, counting What You Leave Behind as two distinct episodes, the plot beats tend to flow in discernible three-episode chunks. Ezri’s mission to rescue Worf plays out over Penumbra, ‘Til Death Do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows. Gul Rusot is introduced in The Changing Face of Evil, is built up in When It Rains…, and meets his end in Tacking Into the Wind. Bashir discovers that Odo is sick in When It Rains…, figures out Section 31 is responsible in Tacking Into the Wind, and recovers the cure in Extreme Measures.

The window of opportunity is closing.

The opening salvo of this ten-episode arc was clearly intended as a three-part story. The original titles of the episodes were Penumbra, Umbra and Eclipse, suggesting an encroaching darkness that would cast a long shadow by the end of the third episode. Coincidentally or not, that would mark the end of the first third of the larger story arc. It suggests a very formal and careful structure, suggesting a three-act structure within the first act of a three-act structure. On paper, it is a very bold and ambitious piece of structuring from the Deep Space Nine writers.

However, the production struggle to maintain that structure. These ten episodes stumble when it comes to pacing and plotting. The weakest threads in this final run are those that feel either rushed or over-extended, which struggle to hit the right beats. Strange Bedfellows is an episode that struggles because it feels like its storythreads have either been stretched or compressed, the important events either pulled back into ‘Til Death to Us Part or pushed forward into The Changing Face of Evil. The result is an episode that feels stranded between bigger story beats.

No time for reflection.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Penumbra (Review)

Penumbra represents the beginning of the end, kicking off the epic ten-episode conclusion to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

To be fair, Deep Space Nine had already embraced serialised storytelling, whether in the seeding of gradually-building plotlines or its long-term character development. The show was most serialised in the audacious six-episode arc that opened the sixth season; A Time to Stand, Rocks and Shoals, Sons and Daughters, Behind the Lines, Favour the Bold and Sacrifice of Angels. In some ways, the ten-episode closing arc is ultimately an extension of that basic idea. However, it is also something more complex.

When the moon is in the seventh house in the Kendra Province…

In some ways, this last narrative experiment would be the boldest creative decision of the entire seven year run. The production team had strained a little bit in structuring and pacing those six linked episodes; Sons and Daughters was notably the runt of the litter, telling a relatively standalone story about Worf while essentially repeating Kira’s character arc from Rocks and Shoals in a much less effective manner. As such, trying to tie ten hours of television together into a single cohesive narrative was a bold move. Then again, Deep Space Nine had never been short of ambition.

It is tempting to treat this ten-episode run as a single story, and it kinda is; Netflix labels the forty-five minute episodes as “Part 1”, “Part 2”, “Part 3”, “Part 4”, “Part 5”, “Part 6”, “Part 7” and “Part 8.” However, the run can also be broken down into smaller chunks. ‘Til Death Do Us Part and Strange Bedfellows were originally titled Umbra and Eclipse, suggesting a three-parter. In contrast, TV Guide listed the first four episodes in the run as a four-parter. When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind are definitely a two-parter. Extreme Measures is practically standalone.

Build a final arc.

Admittedly, the storytelling falters in places, as the production team’s reach occasionally exceeds their grasp. Some of these issues are outside the control of the production team, such as the budgetary concerns that hinder Extreme Measures. Some of these issues are entirely within the control of the production team, such as the pacing of the subplot with Winn and Dukat that leads to the most transparent stalling tactic in When It Rains…. Individual story choices are occasionally misguided, such as the emphasis on the Breen or the Pah-Wraiths.

Nevertheless, these ten episodes hang together surprisingly well. There is a sense of purpose and momentum running through these episodes that strengthens even the weaker hours. More than that, this ten-part saga includes some of the strongest episodes in the entire franchise, with episodes like When It Rains… and Tacking Into the Wind feeling like the culmination of more than nine years of storytelling across two different series. Though individual elements of this sprawling epic might miss the mark, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Dukat is of Bajor…

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