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New Escapist Column! On How “Strange New Worlds” Embracing a Familiar “Star Trek” Staple: The Unfunny Comedy Episode…

I published a new piece at The Escapist this evening. We’re doing a series of recaps and reviews of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which is streaming weekly on Paramount+. The fifth episode released this week, and it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the series.

Spock Amok is a transparent attempt at a comedy episode, a genre that has always posed a bit of a challenge for the Star Trek franchise. The various spin-offs and sequels have a fairly even hit-and-miss ratio when it comes to delivering high concept laughs within the franchise’s science-fiction framework. Spock Amok returns to the goofy concept of body transformation and swapping that drove earlier franchise attempts at comedy, from Rascals to Body and Soul. The results are mixed, but that feels very true to the franchise’s roots.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

221. Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a weekly journey through the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. And sometimes, because we can, a movie not on the list.

This week, to mark the passing Christopher Plummer, a special midweek bonus episode covering Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

An explosion on the Klingon moon of Praxis sends the Klingon Empire into disarray, and forces the warrior race to consider an unlikely alliance with their old enemies in the Federation. The Enterprise is sent to meet the Klingon Chancellor, under the command of Captain James Tiberius Kirk. However, things do not go to plan.

At time of recording, it was not ranked the list of best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Podcast! Standard Orbit #297 – “Inverted Commas”

I was thrilled to be invited to join the great Zach Moore on Standard Orbit, a Star Trek: The Original Series podcast hosted over at Trek FM. I appeared on the show the year before last to discuss the third season of the series, and returned last year to delve into the second season, and so it makes sense that I should be back to discuss the first season.

This is an interesting one, in large part because I don’t necessarily have a strong take or controversial opinion on the first season of the original Star Trek. I think it’s a remarkable season of television, one of the best in the franchise and that it’s an embarrassment of riches in places. So we talk about the order in which we watch the series, the way in which it builds, the sense in which the show was constantly revising and reinventing itself between episodes before emerging towards the end of the year as the Star Trek that most fans know and love. There’s nothing too controversial here, aside from two people sharing their love for a great piece of television. Which is perfect Christmas fodder.

Zach was, as ever, a very gracious host. I had great fun discussing it. You can hear the full discussion below or visit the episode page here.

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Star Trek – All Our Yesterdays (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

It is almost as though the Star Trek franchise doesn’t want to end.

For a fifty-year-old franchise, Star Trek has a hilarious near-miss ratio when it comes to offering satisfying conclusions. There are exceptions, of course. The franchise seems quite good at closing smaller chapters while the rest of the property rattles on. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was the best place to leave the cast of the original show. The final season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might have been rocky, but What You Leave Behind bid an emotional farewell to the cast and crew. Beyond that? The franchise struggles.

A cold reception.

A cold reception.

It often seems like the ideal closing instalment is buried one or two stories shy of the actual ending. All Good Things… would have been a great place to leave the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, particularly since Star Trek: Nemesis wound up being such a damp squib of a conclusion. Demons and Terra Prime provided a satisfying conclusion to the final two years of Star Trek: Enterprise, only for These Are the Voyages… to air as the final episode of the franchise for well over a decade.

This is something that the franchise inherited from the original show. Star Trek was remarkably terrible at choosing a high (or even an appropriate) note on which to end. Although some of this can be down to the fact that sixties television seasons did not build to a finale in the way that modern television does, the three seasons of Star Trek all end in disappointing fashions. The City on the Edge of Forever would have been a great close to a first season that built incredible momentum across its run. Instead, the year ended on Operation — Annihilate!

Snow escape.

Snow escape.

This was a bigger issue during the second season, when it was entirely possible that Star Trek would be cancelled. Ending on a strong note was imperative. Instead, Gene Roddenberry chose to give over the last broadcast and production slot of the season to Assignment: Earth, a thinly-disguised (and ultimately underwhelming) pilot for a series that never got off the ground. Even in terms of production, the penultimate episode of the season was Roddenberry’s vile passion project, The Omega Glory. (The Ultimate Computer would have made a much better ending.)

So it is with the third season. The last episode of the third season is an infamous disaster, Turnabout Intruder ranking as one of the very worst episodes of Star Trek ever produced. Even the misguided and mean-spirited cynicism of These Are the Voyages… has nothing on the rank sexism of Turnabout Intruder. It was an ignominious episode upon which to draw down the curtain, to wrap up three years and seventy-nine episodes of storytelling. It is hard to tell whether the episode is more or less awful than The Omega Glory or Assignment: Earth, but it is in contention.

Dying free(ze)...

Dying free(ze)…

This is all the more frustrating because a perfectly good alternative rests right along side it. All Our Yesterdays is a flawed and imperfect episode in some key ways, like many of the third season episodes around it. It is a story that flows on dream logic rather than rational plotting, relying on a bizarre fairy tale version of time travel and falling back on some of Fred Freiberger’s best-loved tropes. It is also a tough sell as a “final” episode, given that the series had not been cancelled by the point that the episode entered production, and it does not offer too much in the way of closure.

And yet. All Our Yesterdays feels like the culmination of the morose themes that have been building through the third season, all the dead worlds and the ghost stories and the doomed romances. It is a story about escaping to the past when there seems to be no future. It is populated by barren wastelands and death sentences, about the literal end of the world and survival beyond that point. It is a quiet and withdrawn affair, morbid and reflective more than heightened or action driven. It is a story about death, which feels entirely appropriate at this interval.

How BiZara...

How BiZara…

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Star Trek – The Way to Eden (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Like any television, or any piece of popular culture, Star Trek is a product of its time.

That does not mean that the show speaks only to its time or that it has no relevance beyond that moment in time, but in means that the series is very much anchored in the zeitgeist of the late sixties. Sometimes that influence is obscured by advances in the intervening years, like the fascination with the novelty of transplant surgery that played out in the background of Spock’s Brain. Sometimes that tangible connection is more like ambient background noise than direct influence, as with the sense of apocalyptic dread that permeates the third season as a whole.

"You reach?"

“You reach?”

Sometimes, however, it is impossible to look upon Star Trek as anything other than a product of the late sixties. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was undeniably a product of 1968, with its anxiety about civil strife and civil rights, its somewhat reductive metaphor for race relations and its general production aesthetic. However, that is nothing compared to The Way to Eden, which might be the most flamboyantly and stereotypically sixties episode of the entire original run.

The Way to Eden is the episode that opens with a bunch of space!hippies staging a sit-in in the Enterprise transporter room and escalates from there.

Trippy hippie shakedown.

Trippy hippie shakedown.

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Star Trek – Whom Gods Destroy (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Whom Gods Destroy is a mess.

In a lot of ways, Whom Gods Destroy is shoddy and lazy. In many ways, the episode plays like a collection of familiar Star Trek elements blended together to pad out forty-odd minutes of television with no regard for internal logic or plotting and with minimal regard for the characters caught in the middle of it all. There are very few ideas in Whom Gods Destroy that have not been done before, and done better. The episode is not only a rehash of familiar concepts, but it is an exercise in diminishing returns.

Dance with destiny.

Dance with destiny.

This is to say nothing of the chaos unfolding behind the scenes during the production of the episode. It seemed only appropriate that Kirk’s latest mission would take him to what is effectively a gothic asylum in outer space, because it seemed more and more that Star Trek was turning into a madhouse. Veteran staffers were leaving the show in droves, while tensions were mounting on the set, and Fred Freiberger was struggling to keep the budget under control. More than that, there was a clear sense that the series was over, and this was the end of the line.

Whom Gods Destroy really sounds like a disaster. It is certainly not a good episode of television. However, this is the third season. Whom Gods Destroy is interesting enough that it works much better than the season’s weaker episodes. It is elevated by a manic energy that goes some way towards covering for the more illogical elements of the plot, and three central performances that play into the high camp of the premise. Whom Gods Destroy is far from classic Star Trek, but it is much better than it has any right to be.

Absolute madness.

Absolute madness.

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Star Trek – That Which Survives (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Even the title feels morbid.

That Which Survives is sad and mournful. It is a story about returning, but wrong. It is the story of a dead world that by all accounts should not be, haunted by the image of a woman who has been dead for millennia. This spectre both is the original woman and is not; it is mechanical guardian that retains just enough of its subjects personality to be horrified by what it is doing. It is an unsettling premise, particularly for an episode that features Lee Meriwether menacing the crew with her arm outstretched while repeating “I am for you.”

The more, the Meriwether.

The more, the Meriwether.

However, Losira is not the only character who “comes back wrong” over the course of the episode. Over the course of That Which Survives, the crew of the Enterprise are thrown throw space and find themselves racing to rescue Captain Kirk. However, mysterious malfunctions begin to affect the script. Eventually, Spock deduces the cause. “The Enterprise was put through a molecular transporter and reassembled slightly out of phase.” In other words, the Enterprise was taken apart and put back together wrong.

This seems like as an apt a metaphor for the third season as any. Star Trek had been killed at the end of its second season, cancelled by NBC. The show was resurrected for a third season, although it did not return at full strength. Vital members of the production team departed the show. The budget was cut. An outside producer with no previous experience of working on the show was drafted. For many watching at home, there was a sense that the third season had changed. In some ways, Star Trek had come back wrong.

"At least we got in before the purple rain."

“At least we got in before the purple rain.”

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Star Trek – Is There in Truth No Beauty? (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The third season of Star Trek is very odd. It stands quite apart from the previous two seasons.

There are a lot of reasons for this; a new executive producer, the loss of veterans from the first two seasons, production limitations imposed by a slashed budget. Star Trek was never a lavish show, and it always faced production challenges, but those challenges were never more acute than during the third season. In a lot of cases, that oddness is not a good thing. And the Children Shall Lead and Spock’s Brain are very strange pieces of television, but not in a good way. They are clumsy, cheap, ill-judged and ill-advised.

Healthy green glow.

Healthy green glow.

At the same time, that strange vibe of the third season is not inherently bad. There are a number of episodes produced during the third season (particularly during this stretch of the third season) that feel weird and odd, but also refreshing and exciting. Episodes like Is There in Truth No Beauty?, The Empath and The Tholian Web have an eccentric and ethereal quality to them that feels quite removed from the first two seasons of the show. They are also three of the strongest episodes of the season, feeling adventurous and playful.

After all, for all that the third season is maligned, it is surprisingly influential. The third season of Star Trek contributes a great deal to the language and iconography of the franchise, perhaps as a result of the unusual constraints and production realities that inform it. Is There in Truth No Beauty? is an odd little tale, but it is also a clever and effective metaphor that explores grand ideas in the classic Star Trek tradition.

Jonesing for for some Diane Muldaur.

Jonesing for for some Diane Muldaur.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Babel One (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

It seems entirely appropriate that the United trilogy sits in the middle of the fourth season.

The three-parter is not the strongest of the season’s multi-episode epics, abandoning the clean three-act structure that made the Kir’Shara trilogy so successful in favour of a disjointed two-parter-and-coda format that prevents the story from feeling as cohesive as it might. It jolts and starts, never really finding the proper flow for the story that it wants to tell. There is a sense that the production team’s desire to do both a “birth of the Federation” story and a “visit to Andoria” story within the same three-part narrative ultimately hinders the storytelling.

"What do you mean I'm not in the third part?!"

“What do you mean I’m not in the third part?!”

However, there is something satisfying in watching Star Trek: Enterprise commit to the idea of the birth of the Federation. It could be argued that this is an example of the fourth season’s continuity pandering, but the Federation is far more fundamental to the fabric of the franchise than something like Klingon foreheads or that ghost ship from that third season episode. If Enterprise is to be a prequel, it should devote some attention to building the fabric of the shared universe. The Federation is an essential part of the idealistic future of Star Trek.

However, the most compelling aspect of the United has nothing to do with continuity and history. Instead, it is simply reassuring to see Enterprise embracing the franchise’s utopianism and hope for the future, particularly in the context of January 2004.

Shran, Shran, he's our Andorian...

Shran, Shran, he’s our Andorian…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – E² (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 August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Conventional wisdom treats as a bump in the road between The Forgotten and The Council, an episode that could easily be skipped on a marathon rewatch of the season. The argument suggests that the episode ultimately provides little meaningful information and advances the season’s over-arching plot by inches. The most critical of fans will consider an episode that saps the momentum out of the final run of the third season, preventing a clear home run between Azati Prime and Zero Hour.

This is certainly true from a plot-driven perspective. It would be easy enough to trim from the twenty-four episode season order without anybody batting an eyelid. At least Shran gets to make a cameo appearance in Zero Hour, while Lorian fades into discontinuity and non-existence. Like so many time travel stories, the final act of conveniently erases itself from existence. This just reinforces the sense that nothing that happened actually mattered in the grand scheme of things.

It's like looking in a mirror...

It’s like looking in a mirror…

This is another example of the complications that tend to come with serialised storytelling. The conventional way of telling a long-form story is to drive it via plot – to have a clear path along which the characters might advance with a number of clear markers along the way. In the case of the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise, the launch of the Xindi weapon is an obvious marker; it is a plot point which the show must address before the end of the season. As such, the show’s serialisation is typically measured by whether it moves the crew in relation to that plot point.

doesn’t move the crew appreciably closer to that plot point. There is a miniature hurdle for the crew to overcome (getting into the subspace corridor to make the meeting with Degra), but it is very clearly just window-dressing on a plot that is very clearly more interested in the time-travel dynamics of having the Enterprise crew meet their descendants. The same narrative ground could have been covered by having Degra accompany Archer to the Xindi Council at the end of The Forgotten.

He's all ears...

He’s all ears…

However, plot is not the only thing important to long-form storytelling. Theme and character are just as important, as The Forgotten demonstrated. The biggest problem with is that it is a plot-driven episode of television that advances the season’s thematic and character arcs, but with a story that is disconnected from the season as a whole. Which is a shame, because the thematic and character dynamics are fascinating. This is the perfect point at which to confront Archer with the idea of legacy and consequence; to ask what kind of future might lie ahead.

As with a lot of the scripts for the third season, feels like a meditation on Enterprise‘s relationship with the rest of the franchise and where it stands at this point in its run.

"Worf and Dax neve rhad to put up with crap like this."

“Worf and Dax neve rhad to put up with crap like this.”

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