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Star Trek: Voyager – Message in a Bottle (Review)

Message in a Bottle is an intriguing episode, although not necessarily for the most obvious of reasons.

Working with Andy Dick can be tough.

Working with Andy Dick can be tough.

Message in a Bottle is notable for its stunt casting, featuring controversial comedian Andy Dick as the Emergency Medical Hologram, Mark II. Given his background and his interests, Andy Dick is a very strange choice for a Star Trek guest role. Then again, it takes all sorts; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cast Iggy Pop in The Magnificent Ferengi and Star Trek: Voyager finds room for the Rock in Tsunkatse. However, the last time the franchise attempted to cast a famous comedian, Star Trek: The Next Generation ended up with The Outrageous Okona.

Understand, Andy Dick tends to be the focal point for discussion around Message in a Bottle. However, the episode is notable for other reasons. In a weird way, Message in a Bottle kicks off a very loose serialised arc that plays through the next handful of episodes. It introduces the communications grid that plays a major role in Hunters, and features the first glimpse of the Hirogen. The Hirogen go on to play a major role in episodes like Prey, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II.

"What the hell are YOU doing in my Star Trek show?"

“What the hell are YOU doing in my Star Trek show?”

Message in a Bottle also comes at the half-way point in Voyager‘s run, speaking in terms of structure rather than episode count. Message in a Bottle is positioned mid-way through the middle season of Voyager‘s seven year run. Although the count is skewed somewhat by the series’ abridged first season, it feels like the last point at which Voyager is closer to its beginning than to its end. As such, there is something strangely appropriate in the fact that Message in a Bottle allows Voyager to reconnect with Starfleet and the Alpha Quadrant.

This is perhaps the point where the end of the journey “seems a little closer.”

"This never would have happened if they'd just gone with the Bashir model!"

“This never would have happened if they’d just gone with the Bashir model!”

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Sacrifice of Angels (Review)

Sacrifice of Angels goes like the clappers.

If Favour the Bold worked so well because it took its time and invested in character dynamics in the shadows this epic confrontation, then Sacrifice of Angels works so well because it just powers through to the end of the story. Sacrifice of Angels is an immaculately paced piece of science-fiction television, an episode that kicks into gear that the spectacular effects shot of the Starfleet fighters swooping down over those Galor-class destroyers in a haze of phaser fire and chaos. The episode doesn’t let up, powering through the plot to get back to the familiar status quo.

Fields of fire.

Fields of fire.

Sacrifice of Angels is also a meticulously constructed piece of television, with all of the dominoes aligned over the previous five episodes dropping at just the right point in a way that seems organic and natural, allowing for moments that are both surprising and inevitable. It is a very clean and sleek episode of television, one built to a singular purpose with a minimum of superfluous material. It really is a triumphant conclusion to an ambitious six-episode opening arc, one of the most daring narrative experiments in the entire history of the Star Trek franchise.

More striking is the sense that Sacrifice of Angels is very pointedly not the end of the larger arc. The Dominion War that began with Call to Arms does not end in Sacrifice of Angels, even though Sisko retakes the station and the characters return home. The Female Changeling even acknowledges as much in her dialogue, “Contact our forces in the Alpha Quadrant. Tell them to fall back to Cardassian territory. It appears this war is going to take longer than expected.” This is not over, despite the assurances that the writing staff gave Rick Berman on launching the arc.

The whole damn ballgame.

The whole damn ballgame.

Then again, this makes perfect sense. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was constantly and continuously reinventing itself over the course of its run, with several of the show’s season premieres serving as de facto pilots for a new and improved version of the show and several season-enders serving as de facto series finales bookending a particularly iteration of the series. The Way of the Warrior and Call to Arms are a great example, the fourth and fifth seasons bookended by the First and Second Battles of Deep Space Nine.

As such, it is probably more satisfying to look at Sacrifice of Angels as the end of another new beginning for the series, the end of an extended opening arc that is setting up themes and ideas that might hope to pay off over the following two seasons. In some ways, Sacrifice of Angels brings the show back to the end of Emissary. Once again, the Cardassian Occupation has come to an end. Sisko finds himself affirmed as the Emissary of the Prophets and the Commander of Deep Space Nine. This is the order of things.

Going for gold.

Going for gold.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Sons and Daughters (Review)

If A Time to Stand and Rocks and Shoals demonstrate the raw potential and ambition of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, then Sons and Daughters demonstrate its shortcomings.

The fourth and fifth seasons of Deep Space Nine rank among the very best seasons of Star Trek every produced. These two seasons demonstrated a striking level of consistency. There were undoubtedly terrible episodes, like Shattered Mirror and The Muse in the fourth season or The Assignment and Let He Who Is Without Sin… However, these episodes tended to be quite concentrated. Even other episodes that didn’t quite work, like The Sword of Kahless, Sons of Mogh, A Simple Investigation or Ferengi Love Songs, were more bland than outright bad.

Let me be your father figure...

Let me be your father figure…

The sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine lack that consistency. They are even more ambitious than the two seasons directly prior, pushing harder in bolder new directions and resulting in brilliant television like Waltz, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight, Treachery, Faith, and the Great River, The Siege of AR-558, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Chimera, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and Tacking Into the Wind. The sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine were breathtaking and highly enjoyable on their own terms.

In fact, there is a very credible argument for ranking the sixth and seventh seasons of Deep Space Nine among the best seasons of the franchise. They represent the last great narrative leap forward until the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise. These two seasons are driven by a desire to take risks and try new things, to make ambitious gambles knowing that they might not pay off. These are certainly virtues to be encouraged, even without that laundry list of spectacular television.

The lost art of parenting.

The lost art of parenting.

However, with that level of ambition, the sixth and seventh seasons were also much more variable in terms of quality. They contained a lot more misfires than the previous two seasons. This is not just the obvious high-profile failures like Profit and Lace or The Emperor’s New Cloak, but also a lot more episodes that disappoint without hitting quite that level of awfulness; One Little Ship, The Reckoning, Time’s Orphan, Prodigal Daughter, Field of Fire, Extreme Measures. There is a sense that the number of bad episodes increases noticeably.

Sons and Daughters is perhaps the first example of this trend. It is an episode that is not soul-destroying terrible, but it simply does not work in the way that it is intended to work. Sons and Daughters is not only the weakest episode of the six-episode opening arc, it is also the first episode to be written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson as members of the series’ writing staff. The two facts might not be unrelated.

All (Mar)tok tok tok.

All (Mar)tok tok tok.

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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: Voyager – The Gift (Review)

The Gift belongs to a very particular subgenre of Star Trek episodes.

It is an episode that fits comfortably alongside the other second stories of the other fourth seasons, alongside Family on Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Visitor on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Home on Star Trek: Enterprise. It is a relatively quiet and contemplative piece, more rooted in character than plot. In fact, very little of note happens during the episode, even as it is positioned at an important point in the larger run of Star Trek: Voyager following Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II.

Things come to a head.

Things come to a head.

As with FamilyThe Visitor and HomeThe Gift is a breather episode following a more epic adventure. As with Family and Home, The Gift is explicitly about working through the consequences of earlier episodes. Family allowed Jean-Luc Picard to work through the trauma of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, while Home provided an opportunity for Jonathan Archer to make sense of everything that happened between The Expanse and Zero Hour. (Let’s not worry too much about Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II.)

The Gift is an episode of contrasts, driven by the demands of the series rather than its own distinct plot. It is very heavily serialised, playing almost as the third part of Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II; much like Family played as the third part of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. However, there is something very cynical in the use of serialisation in The Gift, as the episode rather transparently exists to transition away from where the show was at the end of Scorpion, Part II towards a more sustainable status quo.

Kes of death to an established character.

Kes of death to an established character.

The Gift is also a tale of arrivals and departures. It is an episode about introducing Seven of Nine to the cast of Voyager, establishing her character arc and setting up her journey across the rest of the series building on her separation from the Borg Collective in Scorpion, Part II. At the same time, it is an episode about the departure of Jennifer Lien from Voyager, bidding farewell to Kes as a result of her exposure to “Fluidic Space” in Scorpion, Part II. There is something quite poetic in that set-up.

However, The Gift is just as much an episode of extremes in terms of quality. The story focusing on Janeway and Seven of Nine is rivetting and compelling, but the thread focusing on Kes plays almost as an afterthought. More than that, the episode’s final act plays as a gigantic cop out, another example of Voyager retreating from some of the bolder ideas in its core concept. The result is a curate’s egg of an episode, a reminder of Voyager‘s discarded potential.

Breakout character.

Breakout character.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Blaze of Glory (Review)

Blaze of Glory is a spectacular piece of television.

It is an episode that serves a very clear plot function in the larger context of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It is clearly designed to tidy away some of the dangling loose ends before the show transitions into the Dominion War. Much like Children of Time was really the last “strange Gamma Quadrant phenomenon” episode, Blaze of Glory is the last Maquis episode. It also marks the last appearance of Michael Eddington, a character who has come a long way since his first appearance as the station’s new security officer in The Search, Part I.

Michael Eddington, Noted Brigand.

Michael Eddington, Noted Brigand.

However, even ignoring the fact that Blaze of Glory fulfils these larger obligations in terms of the show’s long-running plot threads, the episode is an engaging and exciting buddy action film that finds Benjamin Sisko paired with one of his most hated adversaries on a dangerous mission into the heart of enemy territory. Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe prepare a script laced with wry banter for unlikely action heroes Avery Brooks and Ken Marshall, while Kim Friedman directs the episode as if it were a lost Reagan era Shane Black script.

However, Blaze of Glory also feels very much like Deep Space Nine at its best. It is an episode that celebrates how much these characters can grow and change, while also revelling in the diversity of perspectives that make Deep Space Nine such a compelling show. It is an episode that understands Sisko and Eddington are perhaps more alike than either would concede, but which explores those parallels in a way that never obscures their key differences or their mutual mistrust.

Disarming conversation.

Disarming conversation.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Hard Time (Review)

This February and March, 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 Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Hard Time is a fantastic (and vastly underrated) episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The episode tends to get overlooked in discussions about the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, perhaps owing to the high average quality of the season or the fact that it arrives in the middle of what is admittedly the season’s weakest run of episodes. However, in spite of all that, Hard Time is an exemplary piece of Deep Space Nine. It is certainly the best of the series’ “O’Brien must suffer” episodes, and a showcase for Star Trek veteran Colm Meaney. In its exploration of trauma and recovery, and cycles of violence, it taps into the heart of the show.

Not phased in the slightest...

Not phased in the slightest…

That said, Hard Time arrives at a point where Deep Space Nine is nudging closer and closer to serialisation. The show has begun to embrace long-form storytelling, as evidenced by the ripple effect of the changes to the status quo in The Way of the Warrior and the way that little plot threads weave through the season. The show has not yet reached the point at which it can structure six- or ten-episode arcs, but it is getting close. Deep Space Nine is clearly moving towards what is (for Star Trek at least) a fairly novel style of television storytelling.

As such, Hard Time is particularly striking for the fact that it is a purely episodic adventure. The episode puts Miles O’Brien through hell, having him struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder while trying to reintegrate into society. This is the kind of plot that feels more suited to a long-running mini-arc than Worf and Dax’s arguments about the relative merits of bladed weapons or Worf’s decision to move to the Defiant. Instead, O’Brien’s trauma is dealt with over the course of a single episode. Hard Time plays as a defence of the tradition television episode structure.

Growing the beard...

Growing the beard…

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