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Star Trek: Voyager – Critical Care (Review)

Critical Care is the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager attempting to be archetypal Star Trek.

To be fair, Voyager had done this before. When Jeri Taylor took over the show during its third season, she steered it away from the disaster of the Kazon arc and towards a more conventional style of Star Trek storytelling. Many of the episodes of the later seasons could easily have been repurposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Enterprise without changing much beyond the characters’ names; think of Warlord, Scientific Method, Random Thoughts, Waking Moments.

What’s up, Doc?

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Indeed, many of the best episodes of Voyager had this broad and generic quality to them, offering something resembling an archetypal distillation of Star Trek for audiences. Remember and Memorial were both stunning explorations of cultural memory and Holocaust denial that could arguably have worked with any Star Trek cast. Blink of an Eye was a beautiful science-fiction parable that was more about Star Trek itself than Voyager. Even Nemesis could have easily worked with Riker or O’Brien or Tucker as easily as it did with Chakotay.

However, there are also points when these attempts to create “archetypal Star Trek” feels cynical and exploitative, the writing staff very cynically offering audiences something that is designed to meet as many of the vaguely defined aesthetic qualities of Star Trek, but without any substance underneath it. This happens repeatedly during the seventh season of Voyager, when it seems like the production team understand what Star Trek looks and feels like enough to offer a passable approximation, but don’t understand the underlying mechanics enough to replicate that ineffable feeling.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost home.”

Like a lot of seventh season episodes, Critical Care is couched in the trappings of Star Trek but without any substance to group it. On the surface, Critical Care is classic “social commentary” storytelling, the type of allegorical narrative exemplified by stories like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or The High Ground. It is an episode about the horrors of contemporary healthcare, transposed to a distant alien world where Voyager can draw some very broad parallels for the audience watching at home. This is, on a very superficial level, what Star Trek is to a large number of fans.

Unfortunately, these touches do not add up to anything particularly insightful or compelling, Critical Care providing observations on contemporary American healthcare that amount to “this is pretty bad, isn’t it?” without anything resembling actual engagement. The result is a shell of an episode, a missed opportunity, and a pale imitation of the franchise’s best social commentary.

“What is up, Doc?”

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Star Trek: Discovery – The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry (Review)

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry represents another attempt to reconcile one of the central tensions of Star Trek: Discovery, the conflict that exists between the expectations of a Star Trek series and the demands of a piece of prestige television. It frequently feels like there is a tug of war between these two competing impulses within the series, and the production team are trying desperately to find the right balance between these two very different storytelling models.

Much like Context is for Kings, the basic story at the heart of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is quintessential Star Trek plotting. The contours of the plot will be recognisable to any viewer with even a passing familiarity with the narrative structures and templates of the larger Star Trek franchise. At the same time, a lot of the episode’s finer details are more recognisable as the hallmarks of contemporary prestige television. The result is a piece of television that tells a very simplistic Star Trek in a manner that feels somewhat dissonant.

Hanging out with the Kol kids.

There is an awkwardness to The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, a sense that the creative team are still working out the proverbial kinks. Much like the engineering and science staff on the Discovery itself, the production team are creating something new and exciting, but something without a clear precedent or blueprint. Discovery often struggles to properly mix its constituent elements, some of its narrative choices feeling clumsy and others struggling to mesh with the story being told.

At the same time, like Context is for Kings before it, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is an episode that exists primarily to reassure viewers that Discovery is still fundamentally Star Trek, no matter the production design or the prestige trappings. However, Discovery is investing so much time in proving that it is Star Trek, that it is still searching for its own clear voice.

Resting uneasy.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Breach (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.

One of the more interesting aspects of a heightened franchise like Star Trek is the way that invites particular members of staff to define their own voices. On most of the Star Trek shows, it is easy to distinguish the work of particular writers from one another. Ronald D. Moore likes militarism and world-building; Brannon Braga likes time travel and classic science-fiction. There are clear voices that can be distinguished from the choir on each of the shows, for better or for worse.

Although it enjoyed a considerably shorter run than the other Star Trek spin-offs, Star Trek: Enterprise is no exception.  The Breach is a script credited to writers Chris Black and John Shiban. The two had collaborated unofficially on Canamar, a script credited to Shiban alone. The two would work together again on First Flight towards the end of the season. It is certainly a partnership that had considerable potential, if not for Shiban’s departure at the end of the season.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

In many respects, The Breach feels like the product of those two voices. Xenophobia is a major theme of The Breach – as it was in Shiban’s other scripts for the season like Minefield, Dawn or Canamar. Like their last collaboration on Canamar and their future collaboration on First Flight, it seems The Breach presents a more balanced version of Archer than episodes like The Crossing or Horizon. This is a version of Archer who feels compelled to do the right thing, but without the same oppressive self-righteousness that drives his more awkward moments.

However, it seems like Chris Black provides The Breach with its very traditional and old-fashioned Star Trek aesthetic. A veteran of genre television with an understanding of the narrative conventions associated with the franchise, Black understands how Star Trek storytelling is supposed to work. The Breach is perhaps a little too formulaic and traditional in its storytelling, but it does demonstrate that – despite its best efforts – The Crossing had not completely buried a certain optimistic strain of Star Trek ethics.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Canamar (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.

The story behind Canamar is much more interesting than the story told in Canamar.

On the surface, Canamar is quite simple – Star Trek does Con Air.” However, it had an interesting journey from original pitch to televised episode. Indeed, Canamar developed from David A. Goodman’s attempts to break out Judgment, trying to figure out what would happen to Archer after he had been found in Klingon court. Originally, the crew would have rescued Archer from a prison transport rather than Rura Penthe. However, producer Brannon Braga took such a liking to the “Archer on a prison transport” concept that he pulled it out of Judgment and assigned it to John Shiban to script.

"Have you seen Con Air?" "No." "Good. Then this'll all seem new to you."

“Have you seen Con Air?”
“No.”
“Good. Then this’ll all seem new to you.”

However, Braga also divorced Canamar completely from Judgment. Archer would no longer be a prisoner on a Klingon prison transport. Instead, he would find himself mistakenly arrested by an entirely new alien species a couple of episodes before he’d find himself arrested by a more recognised alien species. It feels somewhat redundant, with the first act of Canamar rushing through set-up of plot beats that would feel more organic and fluid if they came from an early episode explicitly designed to build to the idea of Archer on the prison transport.

Canamar is a prime example of just how out of touch Star Trek: Enterprise was with the television landscape, reinforcing the sense that the second season of the show was a holdover from some much earlier period of television production.

"It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. I've outrun Imperial starships."

“It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. I’ve outrun Imperial starships.”

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Star Trek – Bread and Circuses (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.

Bread and Circuses is not subtle. Then again, that is the point.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Bread and Circuses, the fourteenth episode produced for the second season, but the last to air. There’s the idea of a world dominated by “a twentieth century Rome”, a rogue captain, a Prime Directive dilemma and a scathing indictment of modern television. Not only is it one of the last episodes with a “produced by Gene L. Coon” credit, it is also an episode co-written by Roddenberry and Coon. It is also the episode of Star Trek that endorses Christianity most explicitly and heavily.

"Wait, we're only getting it in black and white?"

“Wait, we’re only getting it in black and white?”

Bread and Circuses is a bold and audacious piece of television, full of venom and righteous anger, rich in satire and cynicism. It’s a plot so ridiculously over-stuffed with good ideas that viewers are liable to forgive the show’s somewhat cop-out ending where Kirk and his away team beam back to the Enterprise and continue on their merry way as though little has actually happened. Bread and Circuses feels like it uses every minute of its fifty-minute runtime wisely, balancing character with world-building.

It is probably a little bit too messy and disjointed to be labelled a dyed-in-the-wool classic, particularly when compared to the shows produced around it. Nevertheless, it is a decidedly ambitious piece of work, and one that demonstrates what Star Trek could do when it sets its mind to something.

When in Rome...

When in Rome…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Equilibrium (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Equilibrium is another troubled Dax episode. Dax is probably the hardest character on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cast to write for, if only because of the character’s central premise. “Well-adjusted functionally immortal alien slug inside a young woman’s body” is a nice character description, but it’s hard to ground a character-driven story in that. It’s tempting just to turn the Dax symbiote into a convenient macguffin that can drive various plots.

To date, Playing God is really the only Dax-centred episode of Deep Space Nine that has placed the emphasis on Jadzia rather than the slug inside here. (Although Blood Oath did at least try to deal with how a current Trill host deals with obligations incurred by past lives.) In Dax, the symbiote was a gateway to a pretty conventional and generic murder mystery story. In Invasive Procedures, the symbiote was something particularly valuable to be stolen and exploited.

The biggest problem with Equilibrium is that – like Dax and Invasive Procedures before it – the episode uses the Dax symbiote as a springboard to a story that is more driven by Sisko and Bashir than it is by Jadzia Dax. While Equilibrium does have a great hook and some biting social commentary, Dax feels more like a plot point than a character in her own right.

Shocking behaviour...

Shocking behaviour…

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Does Cabin in the Woods Out- “Hunger Games” The Hunger Games?

Sometimes I form weird movie connections in my head – tying two particular films together even if there’s very little common ground on which to link them. For example, I sat through quite a bit of Shame thinking of Collateral, a film linked tangentially thematically, as both offered rather scathing portraits of anomie against the backdrop of a major American city. On the other hand, I also formed a rather strong connection between the superb Cabin in the Woods and the mega blockbusting phenomenon The Hunger Games. As I watched Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s powerful exploration of the horror genre, I couldn’t help but feel that this was exactly what The Hunger Games wanted to be, even if the film adaptation couldn’t quite manage it.

The show must go on!

Note: This article contains some background information on Cabin in Woods. Nothing too big, but I would honestly recommend that you see the film as blind as possible. It is, by some considerable margin, one of the best films of 2012, and entirely deserving of both your time and your money. This article will still be here when you get back.

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