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Star Trek: Voyager – Dark Frontier, Part I (Review)

The fifth season of Star Trek: Voyager arrives at a point when the Rick Berman era of the Star Trek franchise has hit its midlife crisis.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is coming to an end, bring down the curtain on a seven-year period where there were always two franchise series boldly going simultaneously. Star Trek: Insurrection had been released into cinemas as a snapshot of that midlife crisis, where Michael Piller’s last script for the franchise found the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation desperately chasing their own youth and vitality on a planet with a fountain of youth.

Seven gets back in touch with her roots.

On the fifth season of Voyager, it seemed like the show turned inwards. The scripts for the fifth season are surprisingly retro and nostalgic in tone; Janeway’s reflections on the events of Caretaker in Night, the return of the Maquis and the Cardassians in Nothing Human, the indulgence of retro thirties sci-fi in Bride of Chaotica!, Tuvok’s childhood flashbacks in Gravity, the “telepathic pitcher plant” in Bliss, Seven’s trip back to the launch of Voyager in Relativity, Janeway’s investigation of her ancestor in 11:59.

However, there was a fundamental problem with all of this introspection. Voyager was a television series that had long struggled to define a unique identity, too often feeling like a half-hearted reheat of the leftovers from The Next Generation. It was very hard to turn the focus inwards when there wasn’t a lot unique or distinctive about Voyager. This is a show that was much closer to its end than to its beginning, and it still lacked any true sense of identity or self.

There’s coffee… I mean transwarp coils in that there Borg Sphere.

Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II serve as an example of this nostalgic indulgence, both in form and plot. It is a two-parter consciously designed to recapture the success of broadcasting The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II on the same night in the late fourth season. It is also a television movie that is very clearly patterned off the story for Star Trek: First Contact, borrowing key story beats and clear characters from that memorable Next Generation film.

However, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II also demonstrate the shallowness of Voyager‘s own internal memory. This is a story built around an act of narrative archeology within the larger Star Trek universe, touching on the secret history of humanity’s true first encounter of the Borg. However, that history is ultimately illusory, built around what feels like a misremembrance of one of the franchise’s most iconic alien species. As Voyager turns its gaze backwards, it discovers that it has no real history.

Drone warfare.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Unity (Review)

The autopsy of the Borg corpse is underway.

– Janeway about sums it up

If the third season of Star Trek: Voyager is about the show embracing its place in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, then it makes sense that the third season would bring the crew into conflict with the Borg. The first two seasons of Voyager had leaned rather heavily upon the mythology of The Next Generation, featuring guest appearances from Q and Riker in Death Wish or Barclay in Projections, not to mention a recurring Cardassian foe and enemies heavily influenced by The Next Generation era Klingons.

However, the first two seasons had made an effort to introduce new and exciting foes for Voyager, new recurring species to reflect that the ship was traveling through an unknown part of space. For all the show featured guest appearances from Romulans and Ferengi, the first two years at least tried to do their own thing. The Kazon might have been a questionable idea horribly executed, but at least they were a new species. The Vidiians were underutilised and remain one of the most fascinating recurring aliens in the entire franchise.

The brains of the operation.

The brains of the operation.

The third season only features a few token appearances of the recurring Delta Quadrant species. The Kazon disappear from the show after Basics, Part II. The Vidiians appear within a nightmarish time loop in Coda. A lost Talaxian pops up on a space station in Fair Trade. However, these aliens are no longer a recurring presence. There is an obvious vacancy that needs to be filled. Voyager needs a new recurring alien species. With that in mind, it is telling that the third season does not create a new alien menace like the Hirogen or the Malon.

The third season of Voyager decides that the Borg are to be the shows recurring adversaries. It makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the Borg are arguably the most iconic and effective aliens created by The Next Generation. They were a massive part of the spin-off really coming into its own with The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. They were also a major part of the hugely successful feature film Star Trek: First Contact. There was definitely an appetite for more Borg stories. There always would be.

Corpsing...

Corpsing…

At the same time, the presence of the Borg feels very much like a concession or a surrender. This is Voyager effectively surrendering itself to becoming a pale imitation of The Next Generation, acknowledging that it will never create any alien species as memorable or as iconic as the Borg. That is not an unreasonable thing to accept. After all, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did fantastic work with the Dominion, but that collection of alien species could never hope to have the same cultural penetration as the Borg.

Still, it is disheartening to see Voyager give up on itself so completely. Indeed, Unity is not even a particularly innovative Borg story, feeling very much like a retread of their last television story in Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. This is a recurring problem for the third season of Voyager, which has spent a lot of time emulating various Next Generation episodes. However, there is also a sense that Voyager is not terrible at this imitation, even as it is lessened by it. Unity is a flawed episode, but an intriguing one.

Just what every Borg story needs! A Chakotay romance!

Just what every Borg story needs! A Chakotay romance!

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Rapture (Review)

Faith can be a tricky issue.

At one point in Rapture, the primary cast take a moment to reflect upon it. Kira tries to explain her belief in Sisko and the Prophets to Dax and O’Brien. She struggles. They have difficulty understanding how Kira can invest so much certainty in something so intangible. Eventually, Worf interjects. “Do not attempt to convince them, Major,” he urges her. “They cannot understand.” Dax is a little surprised by Worf’s interest in the topic. “Since when did you believe in the Prophets?” she asks. Worf responds, “What I believe in is faith.”

Gotta have faith.

Gotta have faith.

It is a short conversation, but one that reveals a lot about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As a rule, the Star Trek franchise tends towards a strong atheism, rejecting notions of religion and spirituality as the hallmarks of an underdeveloped civilisation; Return of the Archons, The Apple, For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky, Who Watches the Watchers?, Devil’s Due, False Profits, Chosen Realm. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the franchise prides itself on its rationalism. However, it also feels a little narrow-minded.

Rapture might just be the franchise’s most compelling exploration of unquestioning faith, a harrowing portrayal of devotion and inspiration that captures at once the ecstasy of unwavering belief and the discomforting aspects of watching someone embrace something outside a rational frame of reference. Rapture is a mesmerising piece of television.

"I, for one, welcome our new Klingon overlords."

“I, for one, welcome our new Klingon overlords.”

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact caps off the thirtieth anniversary celebrations with one eye to the past and one eye to the future.

The second film to feature the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation is surprisingly nostalgic in places. The script makes several rather blatant nods towards Star Trek II: The Wrath of the Khan, perhaps the consensus pick for the best Star Trek feature film. It marks the return of a memorable antagonist from the parent series, serving as a direct sequel to a particular episode and pitting the lead character in a battle of wills against an old opponent. More than that, it builds upon a rich tradition of the franchise riffing upon Moby Dick.

"This scene is going to seem really ironic when they launch Star Trek: Enterprise."

“This scene is going to seem really ironic when they launch Star Trek: Enterprise.”

However, there are other major influences. Most notably, the film leans quite heavily upon Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In both films, the Enterprise crew film themselves sent back in time to save Earth from an alien threat, resulting in comedic misadventures as the characters interact with a supporting cast native to this time period. Most analysis of First Contact tends to focus on The Wrath of Khan parallels, as they dominate the primarily plot. Nevertheless, the secondary plot draws heavily from The Voyage Home.

More than that, the feature film draws heavily upon the existing Star Trek mythos. The movie is a direct sequel to The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, recognising that two-parter as the moment that The Next Generation truly came into its own and stepped out from under the shadow of the original Star Trek series. Even beyond that acknowledgement of franchise history, First Contact does not take the crew back in time to the present day or a historical event. It takes the crew back to the point at which the future of Star Trek truly begins.

"Mister Worf, I'll be damned if I'm going to let Star Trek: Deep Space Nine out-badass me."

“Mister Worf, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Star Trek: Deep Space Nine out-badass me.”

Still, while the movie is constructed as a definite celebration of the past, it also serves to define the future of the franchise. The template for the remaining Rick Berman years can be found in this feature film. The success of the action and adventure beats in this instalment undoubtedly informed the emphasis on such elements in Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis. The final two films in this particular iteration of the franchise owe a lot more to this particular film than to Star Trek: Generations.

Even more, the impact of the film reached well beyond this set of characters. The other three television series were all heavily shaped and defined by this particular feature film. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine inherited a lot of the look and feel of this film, with the crew swapping out into these grey uniforms with Rapture. The Dominion War would use a lot of the ships designed for the combat sequence towards the opening of the scene. Some of the other production design also bled in, including the space suits in Empok Nor.

No time like the past.

No time like the past.

Star Trek: Voyager would inherit some of that production design as well, including the space suits in episodes like Day of Honour or Demon. However, the film’s biggest impact on that particular series was the renovation of the Borg. Brannon Braga would seize upon the idea of the Borg as a recurring threat, setting them up in episodes like Blood Fever and Unity mere months after the release of the film. The Borg would serve as the basis of the big third and fourth season two-parter, Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II. Alice Krige would appear in Endgame.

In its own way, this film also signals the end of the Berman era. The arrival of the Vulcan ship in the closing minutes serves to set up the premise of Star Trek: Enterprise. James Cromwell would make the torch-passing cameo in Broken Bow, reprising his role as Zefram Cochrane. The idea of doing a prequel television series that charted the origin of the franchise feels very much rooted in the (critical and commercial) success of this iteration of the film franchise.

"Captain, when the Borg promised you a pound of flesh, it turns out that they meant it literally."

“Captain, when the Borg promised you a pound of flesh, it turns out that they meant it literally.”

On the audio commentary, writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore speak of the thirtieth anniversary as “the peak” of the franchise. After all, it seemed like the celebrations would last forever. First Contact was just one small part of a whole season of television that marked the best that the franchise had to offer. There was a wide selection of material, including episodes like Trials and Tribble-ationsFlashbackFuture’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II. Following all of those, First Contact was really just the cherry on top of a very delicious cake.

However, the issue with First Contact as “the peak” is quite simple. From this vantage point, the audience can survey the entire Berman era. First Contact is positioned so that the audience can see the metaphorical beginnings of the Star Trek franchise, but also the makings of the end of this particular iteration. From the peak, there is only one direction.

"Just checked Rotten Tomatoes there. Still the best in the series. Don't make me put on Nemesis, Mister Worf."

“Just checked Rotten Tomatoes there. Still the best in the series. Don’t make me put on Nemesis, Mister Worf.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Daedalus (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.

Discussions of the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise tend to focus on the multi-part episodes.

That makes a great deal of sense. After all, no Star Trek show had ever built a season around a collection of multi-part arcs. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had embraced serialisation in the second half of its run and Star Trek: Voyager had embraced an aesthetic that supported two-part “event” episodes, there had never been a season of the franchise constructed around a string of two- or three-part adventures. Even the third season of Enterprise had really been on long form story with the occasional episodic diversion.

Padding it out.

Padding it out.

These multi-part stories dominate the fourth season. Of the twenty-two episodes of the fourth season, seventeen are part of seven multi-part stories. Of the five episodes that nominally stand alone, Home is very much a thematic introduction to the season that sets up all manner of ideas to pay off later in the run and These Are the Voyages… is effectively an attempt at a coda for the eighteen years (and twenty-five television seasons) of the Berman era as a whole. Discounting these two “bookends”, that leaves only three standalone episodes.

Two of those episodes, Daedalus and Observer Effect aired back to back in the middle of the season. However, although each episode is self-contained in terms of plot, they do feel like spiritual companion pieces.

Turn the lights off on the way out...

Turn the lights off on the way out…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Regeneration (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.

It seems like a bit of an understatement to describe Regeneration as highly controversial.

The blu ray release of the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise includes two commentaries for the episode, a sure sign that there is a lot to talk about. On a track recorded in 2005, writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong describe the episode as “infamous.” On a track recorded in 2013, John Billingsley describes how certain segments of fandom considered it a “jumping the shark” moment for the show. That last statement illustrates one of the perverse qualities of Star Trek fandom; one would assume that the viewers turned off by Regeneration would have already tuned out with Acquisition.

We are Borg.

We are Borg.

After all, the decision to bring back the Ferengi in Acquisition is hard to explain. Nobody was clamouring for more Ferengi episodes after Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had gone off the air. Outside of Deep Space Nine, the most enduring impression of the Ferengi was that they had begun their life as “villains that didn’t quite work” and bad quickly been transformed into “comic relief that didn’t quite work.” As such, it is hard to account for the decision to bend continuity in order to introduce the Ferengi into the first season of a prequel show designed to escape the baggage of the larger Star Trek franchise.

On the other hand, it made a great deal of sense to bring back the Borg. After all, the Borg were one of the few Star Trek aliens created after 1969 to make a genuine impression on popular culture. The Borg will never be as iconic as Klingons or Vulcans, but they will always be more iconic than Cardassians or Bajorans. They were also stars of the best-loved Star Trek movie starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg are a big deal; there is a reason that Star Trek: Voyager ran them into the ground.

"Assimilate this!"

“Assimilate this!”

It is no wonder that the Borg are frequently cited in discussions around the future of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. Asked if the creative team would consider bringing the Borg to the rebooted twenty-third century, Roberto Orci answered, “I think we would think about it.” Damon Lindelof was even blunter in his assessment, “You can’t talk about Trek and not talk about the Borg.” While they have undoubtedly been over-exposed and over-used since they first appeared in Q Who?, the Borg are the most distinctive and most successful addition to the Star Trek mythos outside the classic show.

While common sense and experience seemed to weigh against bringing back the Ferengi in Acquisition, it seems that continuity is the only thing holding the Borg back from making an appearance on Enterprise. That said, Sussman and Strong find a clever way around that issue, by remembering the suggestion in Broken Bow that Enterprise is as much a sequel to Star Trek: First Contact as a prequel to the rest of the Star Trek universe.

"Oh no, Cap'n, they've discovered the mood lightin' settin'."

“Oh no, Cap’n, they’ve discovered the mood lightin’ settin’.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Carbon Creek (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.

Although it was the second episode of the season broadcast, Carbon Creek was the first episode of the second season produced.

There are a variety of reasons for this. The fact that it only featured three primary cast members would have meant that everybody else got a little extra vacation time. With a lot of location shooting and a production design outside the Star Trek norm, it likely made sense to get it out of the way first. From a budgeting and production standpoint, the show likely benefited from a bit more time than episodes like Shockwave, Part II or Minefield.

"We come in peace...

“We come in peace…”

However, even outside of these pragmatic production concerns, Carbon Creek helps to set the tone for the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise. It is a largely nostalgic and romantic exercise, a rather light stand-alone episode that feels like it wallows in the iconography and conventions of Star Trek. Indeed, the teleplay is credited to Chris Black, the only new writer to survive the writing staff departures that Mike Sussman jokingly referred to as “purges.”

Black is in many respects the first “native” Enterprise writer – the first writer to last more than a season who had not worked on Star Trek: Voyager. As such, it seems only appropriate that he should set the tone for the season ahead.

Vulcan hustle...

Vulcan hustle…

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